Mt. Auburn to host salon addressing death and mortality in a responsible way because “we’ve become so detached from these incredibly life-altering events”
At Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge this weekend, the air will be crisp, and the leaves will start turning to Insta-worthy fiery orange.
Also, from Friday to Sunday, Mount Auburn will host the eighth Death Salon—a conference for and celebration of the death positive movement.
Death Salon is the largest public engagement event of the Order of the Good Death, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization with a mission to make death a part of our lives; to unshroud, as it were, the mystery of the funeral industry; and to dismantle the taboos surrounding death, burial, grief, and commemoration by reintegrating frank and open conversations about these subjects into mainstream culture.
Founded in 2011 by Caitlin Doughty, a mortician, activist, author, and public face of the now worldwide death positive movement and community, the Order of the Good Death has hundreds of thousands of followers and fans across the globe.
“Death is really treated in our society as a taboo, it’s treated as something that’s not natural,” Sarah Chavez, director of the order, says. “Death is looked at with a lot of fear and anxiety, and those fears are very present in our modern-day death processes and dying processes.
“We send our loved ones away when they’re dying. We hire professionals, if someone dies, coroners, funeral homes, people come in and whisk the bodies away. We live in this very privileged society where we never see the dead or the dying, whereas not that long ago this used to be part of our everyday lives.”
Which, according to the order and the death positive movement, is horribly unhealthy.
“We’ve become so detached from these incredibly life-altering events of dying and death that we no longer know how to approach them or what they look like,” Chavez says. That, she adds, affects not just the way we think about death but the way we live our lives.
“Discussing death and mortality has tons of positive aspects to it,” Chavez says. “Even though death is an extremely difficult and sad and awful experience, by focusing on it, by examining it, we can actually appreciate life more.
“People who attend Death Salon consistently come out saying how much more joyful they feel about their lives, and studies also show and support that being aware of our mortality makes us value and enjoy our lives more. It makes us happier knowing that we have a finite time; we begin to put more importance on what we do with our time with our relationship, how we treat others, how we treat ourselves.”
Ultimately, Death Salon is here to ease your fears about death and dying, but also to help you take a deep breath, look around, and connect with yourself and your community.
“We started Death Salon in 2013 as a kind of happy hour scenario for folks within the order,” says Megan Rosenbloom, director of Death Salon. “We wanted to work with each other more, and also get the general public more involved.”
Their first event drew 300 people. This year, tickets for the salon at Mount Auburn sold out in a day.
“There is a lot of value in being there, being together with other people to discuss and interrogate these kinds of things,” Rosenbloom adds. “There’s this value that you have from being in the room and something clicks, you’re inspired, something sticks with you. Those kinds of things I think can be really important if you allow yourself to be in a physical space and open to the experience and hearing new things.”
So, why Boston? And why Mount Auburn?
“We couldn’t pick a better venue,” Rosenbloom says.
Founded in 1831, Mount Auburn was the first cemetery of its kind. Back then, American and European cemeteries were traditionally attached to churches and very frequently in the center of town, like the Central and Granary Burial Grounds on Tremont and Boylston streets. Mount Auburn, built outside of the city, encouraged people to come visit the grounds—and the dead—with intention.
“Mount Auburn was designed to be a space where the visiting public could certainly to come be comforted by the beauty of the landscape, but more importantly to come and learn and contemplate life,” says Bree Harvey, the destination’s VP of cemetery and visitor services.
“This wasn’t only a very practical place to bury the dead but also a space that was supposed to encourage the public to visit and have meaningful experiences through their communion with the dead.”
At the same time, Mount Auburn, as a member of the funeral and undertaking community, has sought ways to incorporate death positivity into how people relate to and bury or cremate the dead. It was the first cemetery in Mass to be certified to perform natural burial, or “green burial,” by the Green Burial Council and is dedicated to integrating sustainability into its commemoration services.
“Mount Auburn is doing the work of death positivity,” Rosenbloom says. “They’re on the vanguard of what does it look like for a traditional space to be truly death positive.”
In addition to offering green burial, Mount Auburn has recently renovated its crematory to make space, both physically and emotionally, for family participation in cremation services.
“Cremation services have always taken place behind closed doors,” Rosenbloom says. “The body is viewed by the family and then taken and burned. The renovations Mount Auburn has made allows the family to participate. It’s incredible.”
“We’re so excited to host Death Salon,” Harvey says. “It has become an underlying goal of the Friends of Mount Auburn, our nonprofit educational trust, to engage the public in dialogue about death and commemoration. It aligns perfectly with the philosophy and spirit of the Order of the Good Death and Death Salon.”
While the Salon itself is sold out, the order and Mount Auburn Cemetery are hosting what they’ve called Death Salon Field Day from 9 am to 4 pm on Friday, Sept 28. Visitors can expect a day of events and presentations that is free and open to the public. Talks will focus on the facilities, history, and services of Mount Auburn, and wrap up with a book signing by Caitlin Doughty.
That night, the order and Mount Auburn are also hosting an Edward Gorey-themed fundraiser, an “evening of drinks, music, Edward Gorey artifacts, original art by Landis Blair, and the good company of your fellow Death Salon attendees and organizers. Naturally, Gorey-themed attire is strongly encouraged,” and tickets are still available.
Other options for becoming involved in or exploring death positivity are Death Cafes, smaller-scale salon-type gatherings of people interested in discussing death, dying, and how to make the whole concept of mortality less frightening. There are three Boston-area cafes between now and January.
As the leaves turn from green to orange, as the chill of autumn sets into New England, it’s hard not to think about change, about things ending. If there’s anything the Order of the Good Death, Death Salon, Mount Auburn Cemetery, and the hosts of Death Cafes worldwide tell us, it’s that we’re not alone in contemplating death, dying, and mortality.
We’re all gonna die. We may as well talk about it.
If you can’t make it out this weekend but want to be involved in or attend events in the future, the Order of the Good Death and Mount Auburn Cemetery both host series of death positive events year-round.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.