How the COVID-19 Pandemic May Permanently Change Our ‘Good Death’ Narrative

A drive-in funeral. Image: Mission Park Chapels and Cemeteries in San Antonio, TX.

Thousands are now dying in hospital ICUs around the country without the supportive presence of their loved ones at the bedside. Funerals are being held with fewer than 10 people, or not at all. Funeral directors are unable to provide the comforting space for families to mourn and remember their loved ones. Religious leaders around the world are finding the bodies of the faithful inaccessible for the administration of the rites and rituals that are typically performed at the time of death. A Good Death is unlikely during a pandemic.

It may sound odd to some that such a thing even exists, but in every time and place our collective imagination holds a vivid picture of the Good Death. It’s the way we’d want to die if we had our druthers. Our notions of the Good Death are informed by our cultural landscape and, for many, by our religious imaginaries. Typically, the Good Death is an approximation of the kind of death most people of some racial and economic privilege in the society enjoy. 

Periodically, a crisis disrupts the possibility of that Good Death for a whole society. We are now living through―and dying within―such a disruption. The global pandemic of COVID-19 will challenge our potential for a Good Death in ways we haven’t imagined or prepared for. 

In a class I’m teaching at Chicago Theological Seminary called “A Practical Theology of the Corpse,” I asked my students to describe their notion of a Good Death in the 21st Century. They said the kinds of things you’d probably say, too, if you took a moment to think about the question: dying peacefully and without pain (or at least with well-managed pain), dying in old age, dying at home, drifting off to sleep never to wake, dying at peace with loved ones, and, if medical support is necessary, then dying in hospice care is preferable to dying in an ICU. 

In contrast, an undesirable death to my students―and probably to you―includes such things as dying too young, dying in such a way that our body is unrecoverable by our family, dying in a traumatic way, dying after lengthy suffering, dying in a way that shocks or traumatizes loved ones, and dying in an ICU or after prolonged medical heroics is generally not preferable.

At the time of this writing, the known infections of coronavirus in the U.S. have reached 205,172 with 4,540 deaths caused by the virus. These numbers change by the hour. (Italy’s death toll is currently over 13,000.) In nearly every way, these statistics subvert the potential for a Good Death as most of us would imagine it. But we’re not the first to experience such disruption.

The sudden death of the Good Death

Drew Gilpin Faust describes the Good Death in mid-19th century America as a part of respectable middle-class expectation as much as it was about any particular religious affiliation. One died at home in the presence of family around the deathbed. The dying person was conscious of death’s approach and willing to accept it. Family members assessed the spiritual state of the dying in relation to the deathbed scene, including careful attention to the dying person’s last words. And families cared for their own dead, in what we now call “green burials” (or, as they called them,  “burials”).

Fewer than 15% of Americans died away from home in the mid-19th century. The Civil War ruptured that norm in a dramatic fashion. Over 600,000 people died in battle. In Gettysburg alone, 7,000 corpses were strewn on the battlefield. After many battles, there were too many dead bodies for the military or nearby townspeople to adequately care for. Most died with no one to hear their last words or assess their spiritual state, and no one to lovingly care for their remains. 

Embalming emerged as a practice of corpse preservation that served a very practical need when the Victorian Good Death was disrupted by the carnage of war. The Good Death included a body―a body that could be cared for and buried by the deceased’s family. Embalming on the battlefield allowed 40,000 families (that could afford it) to have their loved one returned to them. 

How our practices adapt to a disruption of the Good Death have long-lasting effects on our funerary customs. Prior to the War, an invasive surgical-like procedure performed on the body of a dead loved one was an unthinkable, stomach-churning violation. Folks didn’t even want their corpse to be used by doctors for the teaching of medicine. A Good Death included an unviolated corpse. But after the embalming of Abraham Lincoln the practice stuck―for better or worse (I argue largely worse)―and remains a cornerstone of the funeral industry a century-and-a-half later. 

When the first modern cremation was conducted in the U.S. in 1876, burning the remains of a loved one was an unintelligible funerary practice. No one at the time could have predicted that the practice of cremation would become the chosen method of body disposition for 54.8% of the U.S. population today. Jessica Mitford’s famed economic critique of the funeral industry in The American Way of Death (1963) helped solidify cremation’s rising role in our Good Death consciousness. 

The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 disrupted the Good Death for hundreds of thousands that year in many of the same ways we’re experiencing now, and in very similar ways that the ancient Greeks experienced during the 430 B.C.E. “plague of Athens.” Too many corpses overloaded the capacity of communities to care for the dead with all of the ritual and deathcare practices that were customary. 

How our Good Death narratives adapt to the coronavirus pandemic may have long-lasting effects on our own deathcare and funerary practices well into the coming decades, and there will be much adapting to do. 

The virus will rupture our Good Death narratives 

By some reports of those on the front lines in our hospital ICUs, those who die from the virus often die in a precipitous experience of lung failure. It’s the reason our desperate shortage of ICU beds, ventilators, and intensive care personnel is front-page news every day. Our deaths will be shaped by the culture of intensive care. 

Now, just as in the Victorian era, familial presence with the dying is a central feature of our Good Death narratives. But many who die of COVID-19 will die in isolation in a hospital ICU. Families will be unable to attend the bedside of their dying loved one. Hospitals will be largely closed to visitors due to risk of contagion. Many family members will be in quarantine themselves because of their exposure to someone with a positive diagnosis. 

Even those we have on hand in our hospitals to provide support to patients and families in the midst of death―chaplains, social workers, bereavement coordinators―are unable to physically access patients dying of coronavirus or to provide care to families in the midst of grief at the deceased patient’s bedside. The deathbed will often be unattended except for critical medical personnel. 

In a culture of extreme individualism, we like to think that each of our deaths will be special. People will notice when we drop dead―at least those in our extended social sphere. Our contemporary conventional practices of burial are evidence of this Good Death neoliberal individualism: our dead body preserved with toxic chemical embalming (for Christians at least; Jews and Muslims do not embalm their dead), placed in a hardwood or metal casket (a container of valuable objects), placed again within a concrete or metal vault sealing us off in permanent separation from the earth (a final statement of human exceptionalism), and buried in our own little private plot of land in perpetuity (the Good Death is draped in our cultural obsession with private property). 

In the coming months, everyone will lose someone within a few degrees of separation. Some will lose many. Worst-case scenarios suggest that between 200,000 and 1.7 million people could die in the U.S. alone. The grief of each person will be just as palpable to loved ones, but the communal shock of a single death will be diffused by the sheer number of our dead. 

Our Good Death narratives include gatherings of those left behind for the purpose of remembering the dead. We want to die surrounded by those we love, and we also want those we love to surround us when we have lost someone close to us. In the coming months, public health concerns will alter our common funerary practices that involve large gatherings of family and friends of the deceased. As is usually the case, it is the living, not the dead, who create the threat to public health. 

Some will still hold funerals under the recommended 10-person limit. Others will choose a direct cremation or burial without any rites, rituals, or ceremony in favor of a funeral or celebration of life at a later date (something many choose to do even under normal circumstances as part of a “convenience” storyline in the American Good Death narrative). 

Italy has banned funerals altogether. The dead are being buried or cremated without the family seeing the body of their loved one and with no service or ceremony. The death rates are so high in Italy that many funeral homes are becoming overwhelmed and unable to meet the demands for postmortem care.

It’s a disturbance of our Good Death status quo to recognize that this will happen to many of those we love, to many of us, in the coming months―not to the ancient Greeks or the poor souls of 1918 or to people in far off places where no one we know lives. 

Cultivating Good Death imagination 

We must begin to cultivate new imagination for deathcare practices in the midst of this global pandemic that will rupture our every notion of the Good Death. 

There are a number of practitioners who will inform this collective imagination in the coming days: imams, rabbis, pastors, and priests, hospital chaplains and funeral directors, home funeral guides and death midwives. But―and this needs emphasis―families also hold wisdom that should become central to the deathcare and funerary practice we institute in the coming days. 

Change in practice often institutes change in theory (e.g., how the battlefield stopgap measure of embalming created a nascent profession of embalmers that soon solidified in the cultural imagination of a Good Death for the next 150 years). But, for now, let’s start with theory in a way that might spark imagination for future practice. 

In her famed 1985 essay, “Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway describes three boundaries being breached in late-20th century scientific culture: the boundary between human and animal; that of animal-human organism and the machine; and the boundary between the physical and the non-physical. How might these three breached boundaries come to the fore in our reimagining the Good Death in the midst of this pandemic? 

Beyond just the “animal,” the larger web of life is brought into focus by the coronavirus pandemic in ways that intimately relate to our survival and our death. Herd immunity describes the state in which a sufficient number who have developed immunity to the virus protect those still at-risk of infection from contracting the virus. Scientists roughly estimate that this state will be reached when at least 60% of the population is immune. This means―without a vaccine―the majority of the population must contract the virus and survive in order to establish enough immunity in the population to protect those still uninfected. (Hopefully this takes place over a long enough period of time that our health system is not overwhelmed.) Put another way, the virus needs to inhabit us in order for us to survive. 

How might our reassessment of the Good Death in the wake of COVID-19 help us to see our human lives more intimately bound up in every way with the larger web of life―a web of which we are a part and that is, even in the case of a virus, always becoming a part of us? Can this lead us to reconceive how we place our dead into the earth, no longer separated by chemicals and metal and cement that further concretizes our exceptionalism, but breaching a fictive boundary between the human and more-than-human in order to return a greater whole? 

When the deathbed scene doesn’t include the family, and funerary rituals cannot include a gathered community, can “cyborg funerals” help us in our work of mourning? Beyond simply replicating what we would normally do  via Zoom , how can we honor the dead’s connection to technoculture, as well as to the larger organic web of life, in our funerary practices? 

For example, we might imagine recorded remarks from loved ones, keeping their social distancing practices, filming words of remembrance at varied sites of significance to the deceased: a back porch rocking chair, a local fishing pond, a beloved hiking trail, the site of a first date or a family vacation or a long-held job. This could draw together in the space between the physical and the non-physical a deceased person and a community of human and more-than-human others sharing a cyborg mourning space. Then, via whatever platform everyone views the compilation and remembers the dead and joins together in the work of mourning loss and celebrating life. In such a cyborg funeral, we wouldn’t be all together in one place, but we could be all together in cyberspace. 

Can our communal practices develop in such a way that bestows a sense of “specialness” upon those who die during this pandemic, no matter their cause of death? They will have died in an out-of-the-ordinary time―a kind of historical hinge point in our relationship to death and community. 

Could the unwelcomed ubiquity of death rupture our contemporary hesitation to discuss death openly, making death-talk less taboo? Rather than a typical American avoidance of any serious talk about death, will we turn toward one another in collaborative dialogue about end-of-life questions and advance directives, funerary rituals that honor our connection to the earth, religious rituals that shape our relationship to death, life, and the Divine? 

Whatever death practices we develop during this time, I hope that we will imagine them not just as stand-in replacements and sub-par replications of the status quo until we can get back to “normal.” Instead, what we do together in this time can invite a cultural reimagining of the Good Death for a new era that may never truly go back to “normal.” 

In a 2013 presentation to a zoological society, anthropologist Deborah Rose talked about the work of mourning: 

In short, mourning is a process of learning and transformation to accommodate a changed reality. Mourning is about dwelling with a loss and so coming to appreciate what it means, how the world has changed, and how we must ourselves change and renew our relationships if we are to move forward from here.…This work is not opposed to practical action, rather it is the foundation of any sustainable and informed response.

We are living and dying now at the cusp of a long period of mourning that will rupture what we’ve known as a Good Death. May it also be a period of learning and transformation as we enter together into a changed reality and renewed relationship―with one another, with the more-than-human, with meaning and life, and with our collective hopes for a Good Death.