I spent several hours over the course of several days after seeing Get Out combing the internet for a very specific kind of think piece: one that taps into the vein of the typically cis, typically white, typically male obsession with immortality. But it wasn’t there. Or, I should say, it wasn’t in the typical death positive spaces or death and dying circles.
Admittedly, this is kind of a niche point for much of think piece culture, but this *should* be an easy hit in the death positive scene, in the TEDMed scene, in the philosophical circles, since the base conversation point (the obsession with immortality) isn’t necessarily new; Caitlin Doughty specifically uses racial and gendered language it in her ‘Ask a Mortician’ videos and, more intimately, in her memoir Smoke gets In Your Eyes, where she describes a date with a white neuroscientist PhD candidate who’s sole motivator is life-youthful-and-eternal, and exactly why that makes him the most boring and insipid kind of person.
But there’s a certain inconvenient and uncomfortable truth. While it’s understood that the death positive movement is a women’s movement (there were at least three separate spotlights on women of the death positive movement alone in Fall of 2016), these death/dying circles are still majority white-centric. I don’t mean to pick on their integrity as a collective or even as individuals, as I respect them a great deal, but many of the Order of the Good Death themselves are white, and the prominent folks of color who are on the site’s roster are fair-skinned.
Mind you, I don’t think that’s on purpose at all. I don’t believe that the Order actively excludes women of color—in fact, CD in Smoke was very enthusiastic to mention how many woc were enrolled in the same funeral arts program as her—but the Order is very much the byproduct of how all ‘think groups’ and philosophical circles, even the most progressive, are still largely unappealing, maybe intimidating, definitely uninviting spaces.
The discourse on death positivity and a Good Death™ is pretty directly supported by the entire package of white privilege, the combinations of racial/ethnic privilege, religious privilege, naturalized privilege, class privilege. Very often, folks and the families of folks who do not fit these categories wind up with significantly less opportunities to bury their dead, let alone to commit their dead to radical and revolutionary post-mortem advances, such as the mushroom suit or water cremation.
In the event that a black person’s body does become interesting to science, it’s under insidious pretenses, such as in the case of Henrietta Lacks’ immortal flesh. This cancerous tissue that killed Mrs. Lacks was sampled without her living consent and is now growing in labs all around the world. For context, there is enough flesh of the “HeLa cell line” that altogether the total the total sum is 400x the original weight of Mrs. Lacks in life. Hauntingly, these samples are grown for experimentation for the purpose of unlocking the cure to death, not to alleviate or eliminate cancer.
In Get Out, black bodies are literally the extension cords for white lifespans to yield their fullest range of potential.
My caveat: I myself am Definitely Not Black. I’ve listened to black voices. I’ve reflected on black media. I’ve seen glimpses of the black experiences that my friends, past roommates and colleagues live in their mundane lives. My own opinions are rooted in my own academic and observational experiences as well as my empathy as a descendent of Jewish diaspora, but my ability to meet in the middle in a cooperative conversation about the racial politics of immortality is stunted, because I’m not black. I don’t want to lead this discussion, nor do I feel entitled to.
End of life and funerary spaces are hostile across the board, and we know they are. But I do want to personally open my door to my level of death and dying discourse to black folk to engage on this topic. I want to be an active listener. I also want to personally encourage my colleagues in the death scenes to be more conscientious to black and brown voices and experiences and to vocally invite women of color to be part of this feminist revolution in the death and dying industries.