A New Relationship Between Death & Well-Being Is Emerging
More often than not, we only talk about death when we have to—when it's happening to us or someone we love, or once it's already happened. But in recent years, we've seen the way society thinks about death changing—so much so, that in the year 2020, we expect death to become an integral part of wellness.
Now more than ever, people are thinking about death. They're thinking about how they themselves want to die, how to care for their loved ones, and how to align their death with their values. At the same time, people are becoming more interested in learning how to prolong their own lives, whether it be through lifestyle changes or scientific intervention. Why the sudden shift? After all, groups like Death Cafe and Death Over Dinner have been inviting people to speak openly about death—with loved ones and complete strangers—since 2011 and 2013, and it's no secret that most people want to live longer. Well, there are a few reasons.
The first is that people are starting to choose quality of life over quantity of life. In other words, rather than trying to prolong the life of someone who is nearing death, people are prioritizing the comfort and values of the individual.
"From my experience, many people value autonomy and control in their lives and want to make sure their personal goals and values are honored until the very end of life," says Shoshana Ungerleider, M.D., founder of the End Well Foundation. "They also recognize that quality of life, not just quantity of years, is of utmost importance."
According to the CDC, the number of people dying in hospitals has dramatically dropped while the number of people dying at home or in a community setting continues to increase. They attribute this to both a dissatisfaction with the health care system and a growing number of alternatives. Many people find that death in a hospital is often impersonal and that inpatient treatments aren't always worth the suffering (for both the individual and their loved ones).
"Sadly, there's a lot of unnecessary suffering that happens toward the end of life within our medical system. Our system is set up to facilitate the extending of life—we try to keep people breathing, even if it's just for a bit little longer," says Linsey McNew, of End Well. "All of that comes at a cost. Asking for more intubation doesn't always prolong life, and it doesn't usually align with the values most people have at the end of their life."
Another cause for concern, when thinking about death, is our environment.
Millennials, in particular, have become acutely aware of their carbon footprint, and they're looking for sustainable ways to die. Methods like coffin burials and cremation aren't seen by environmentalists as planet-friendly options. Just 10 acres of cemetery requires 1,000 tons of casket steel, 20,000 tons of concrete for vaults, and enough wood from buried coffins to build over 40 houses. Cremation, though thought to be an eco-friendly option, often requires the burning of natural gas, which in turn increases the amount of greenhouse gases we release into the air.
"We are relearning how to die and how to talk about death—quite literally regaining death literacy," says Michael Hebb, founder of Death Over Dinner. "Literacy leads to empowerment. People are reclaiming this part of their lives, their final chapter, and how they want to be remembered. It's no surprise that sustainability would be a leading value as people wake up to the reality that they have choice and agency when it comes to the end of life."
Today, there are a myriad of death alternatives—from the mushroom burial suit that makes your body biodegradable (which Luke Perry specifically asked for) to corporations like Recompose (that convert human remains to soil)—and we predict that the number of options will skyrocket in 2020 (and that more people will choose those options). It seems like every minute another natural burial organization is founded or progress is made toward minimizing the damage of cremation. You can even have your ashes made into a diamond or become one with the ocean. Whatever a family needs, a death doula can assist with, whereas hospice employees can be limited by company policies. With the conversation around death becoming less taboo, people will be able to die the way they want—and their loved ones won't have to guess; they'll know.
In a similar vein, we predict there will be a surge in options for end of life planning in 2020. Death doulas have become increasingly popular, particularly in Colorado, as people search for ways to ease themselves through the process. These doulas offer "emotional support to the dying and their loved ones"—they don't take the place of hospice, but rather they step in wherever they're needed. We've also seen the rise of digital solutions in the last few years, like Cake, an app that aims to make end-of-life planning easier, and SafeBeyond, an app where people can memorialize their loved one's life stories through video and audio recordings and store valuable personal information like passwords and end-of-life wishes. With technology advancing by the millisecond, we have no doubt that the process of dying will become manageable for all involved: the passing individual, their loved ones, and their future generations.
As talking and thinking about death becomes mainstream, we foresee another trend coming to light in 2020: the optimization of life span.
Longevity and how to extend the life of the living will become major topics in the realm of health and wellness. Peter Attia, M.D., has spoken at length about the role that fasting plays in autophagy—a self-preservation process where our bodies clear out damaged cells and regenerate new, healthy ones, which in turn "turns back our clocks" and promotes our longevity. Researchers are also buzzing about extending longevity through the use of stem cells, gene therapies, and other newly developed technologies. We anticipate that people will start focusing on their "health span," as Frank Lipman, M.D., puts it—meaning we'll endeavor to live as long as possible by constantly improving and maintaining our overall health. In doing so, we can potentially lengthen our lives on a cellular level, or, given the promising body of research behind things like Metformin, NR1, and NAD+2, slow our own aging.
In essence, we predict that the discourse on life and death will change. Namely, it'll include chats about trying to avoid death but also improving end-of-life care for the dying. Those in the early or middle stages of their lives will center their efforts on preserving their health in the name of longevity—and those nearing death will receive the care and send-off they deserve.
The mindbodygreen editorial team worked together on the creation of this article, combining their deep expertise honed by years of reporting on health and well-being. It has been thoroughly researched, written, fact-checked, and reviewed by our editors.