“Shh! Don’t You Dare Say It!”: The Stigma Around Death

Death is intertwined throughout all our lives, so why do we continue to pretend it doesn’t exist?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The flowers our moms plant by the windowsill will eventually wither away, and many people have no qualms about swatting mosquitoes that give us itchy bumps on our skin. By the ripe age of seven, most children understand what it means to die, whether through losing a loved one or by word of mouth. However, even with this universal understanding, questions about death can be a parent’s worst nightmare, alongside “How are babies made?” and “Why is the sky blue?” Instead, we’re taught to say that people have “passed on” or that they’re “in a better place.” Somehow, saying it out loud seems to be one of those unspoken prohibitions that everyone follows.

As children, our natural curiosity conjures dozens of questions about death. As we grow, we learn to suppress our curiosity because we’re told it’s the right thing to do. As a result, the Funeralcare Media Report, the biggest survey ever conducted on death in the U.K., finds that even though 91 percent of Brits have thought about their own mortality, almost 18 million are uncomfortable talking about death. Furthermore, while 92 percent of Americans believe talking with their loved ones about end-of-life care is important, only 32 percent do so. Perhaps it’s human nature to run away from the things we fear the most, but the further we run from our fears, the more they haunt us. 

The taboo around death has major consequences—those on their deathbeds are left isolated, and those facing bereavement cannot properly approach the event, which exacerbates their emotional ordeal. This common approach often backfires to the point where family members can’t communicate their negative feelings. Similarly, the one dying holds in words that they won’t have the chance to speak, and their loved ones don’t realize until the guilt deals a major mental toll. Following the loss of a loved one, 40 percent of grievers experience what meets the criteria for a major depressive episode one month after their loss, and 24 percent still meet the criteria for major depression after two months. The solution is clear: we must normalize talking around death, both as a society and as individuals. 


At a societal level, there are clear, current examples of celebrating death as a natural part of life. For instance, the iconic animated film Coco showcases el Día de los Muertos, a beautiful celebration of the familial bond uniting the dead and the living all over Latin America. Through the use of colorful imagery and symbols for death, Coco exemplifies how not all representations of death have to be this monotone, eerie depiction that Western pop culture commonly promotes. In addition, celebration-of-life ceremonies that focus on the legacies of those who have died have become increasingly popular on a global scale in the past five years. A comparison of Western, Asian, African, and Latin American societies as a whole shows the former holding a fearful attitude towards death while the latter accepts and emphasizes purpose within death. Consequently, research finds that “the Eastern response to death is a renewed commitment to enjoying life,” while the Western focuses on dread following the ordeal.

Nonetheless, changes at an individual level are the second part of the equation. As mentioned earlier, the taboo around death begins the moment we understand what death is as a concept. Many parents argue that the topic of death is inappropriate because they assume children cannot handle such a serious topic. I can’t count the number of times my parents have said to me “乌鸦嘴”—a Chinese saying that implies a person who brings bad luck—after bringing up anything related to death. This common misconception makes it so that when children grow up, they are unprepared to handle any topic around death. However awkward it may be, such topics are essential to talk about. Just like the “birds and the bees” talk, it’s important to teach kids from a young age that they can discuss death and have an adult who will guide them through their questions. Similarly, schools should have a curriculum in place that fosters healthy discussion around death within classrooms. Creating these safe spaces for all individuals allows communities to understand and fare better when inevitably having to face grief. 

As Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius once said, “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” The next time you wonder something about death, talk about it—engage in a conversation with your teachers, your friends, or your siblings. It is only when each of us works towards fostering a culture of acceptance around death that we can learn to come to terms with it. Death is simply a reminder of how precious our time in this world is. If the fear of it keeps us from using that time in the way that will fulfill us the most, then we’ve already died at heart. We have to change how we look at death, for that is the only way we can start truly living life.