You are going to die. An extreme statement, but it is true. Death is one of the only inevitabilities in this world, the great equaliser that comes to everyone and can be at any possible moment. Yet we don’t really talk about death, don’t discus our death plans over tea, and the rites of death have gone from something personal and performed by friends and family to a full industry where we entrust our loved ones to total strangers. In recent years a movement has begun to seek better and more varied death options for people, and in director Rehana Rose’s elegant and beautiful documentary Dead Good, we get to experience this intimately.
The film focuses on ARKA, a funeral company based in Brighton. Immediately from seeing them work you can tell that they are very different from the usual corporate funeral home, transporting the bodies in shrouds that are more like cosy blankets. It feels more comfortable and caring than you may be expecting. They strive to have funerals which founder Cara Meir hope will remove a lot of the percieved otherness of the process of death, using natural materials and no embalming (it’s not as necessary as some people think), and involve friends and family of the deceased more closely. We follow this collaborative process and hear the testimonies of people who work with ARKA or have used their more relaxed and affable services. They also offer opportunities for more creative expression in grief; tiger striped coffins transported to a church in hearse sidecars, intricately woven willow wicker caskets for a natural burial, a Buddhist funeral with a rainbow casket, coffins arriving in VW campers or big red buses, each funeral is as individual as the person that is being said goodbye to, and that feels very right. We do see the corpses, but it’s nothing grotesque or shocking, instead they are very gentle and intimate moments of washing, dressing, and just caring for the dead person in very personal ways. It’s something that isn’t upsetting for the loved one, instead they seem to have had a measure of their emotional weight lifted by getting to spend time with the person as part of the process of saying goodbye instead of being kept at a distance. It’s healing, and the film does an excellent job of showing us everything in a way that is frank, informative, but also with the utmost respect that can never be accused of being morbid.
It’s also very interesting to note that just about all the forerunners in this low-key revolution of death positivity are women. Traditionally it was the women of the family who would prepare a body for burial before modernisation brought about the rise of undertaking as a business and the process was taken out of the family’s hands by a much more rigid corporate system, so this almost feels like the women taking the practise back to a more personal level. Not just ARKA, but also groups like The Order of the Good Death, a collection of death professionals as well as academics and artists working to spread normality around the discussion of death. The group’s founder, mortician Caitlin Dougherty, has also written a lot about both her experiences in the business and also the way that death is approached around the work, something in extreme contrast to how our society deals with it, mostly by not directly dealing with it at all.
What makes Dead Good so great is the way that it shows death as something which doesn’t have to be scary and opens up the mind to contemplations of what we the viewers might want for when we die with a reassurance that it can be a positive communal thing. As for me, I’m a fan of the idea of a natural burial; just put me in the ground in a shroud or biodegradable casket and plant flowers over me as I decompose, and this film says in a thoughtful way why I should be allowed that kind of an option and shows the people who can make it possible.