In the western imagination, death is taboo, dark, distant and mystical. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, quoting the historian Philippe Ariès, points out that since the 1930s, “death, which in the past had been something familiar since it was everywhere [...], became something shameful and forbidden.” Palliative nurses, end-of-life doulas and American funeral home workers have begun using Tik Tok to combat that stigma, particularly prevalent in Anglo societies. The community, which calls itself Deathtok, shares practical advice, jokes and gossip about the adventures of the end of life.
Hospicenursepenny, who prefers to use her digital alias to preserve her privacy, dances to the lyrics “It’s just water,” while information scrolls across the screen: “Your loved one does not need liquids at the end of life. His body is shutting down. He is not going to die of dehydration, he is going to die of his illness.” The nurse, who has cared for hospice patients for 17 years, took to Tik Tok during lockdown to entertain herself, but her goal changed when her first clip about palliative care brought her a sudden spike in followers. She realized that even though the topic is uncomfortable, people are hungry to talk about it. “Every time I have been able to communicate to a family that what was happening to their loved one was a normal part of the dying process, I have seen their relief. With Tik Tok, I reach people all over the world,” she explains.
Doula Cait Maddan includes dying people in some of her videos, accompanied by voiceovers and viral songs in the background. One of them begins, “Preparing for death like: Living will, talk with family about options, register everything with digital passwords.” The videos’ objective, like that of so many other accounts on Deathtok, is to normalize illness and death in order to ease the process. “We tend to avoid death at all costs, even when life-prolonging treatment causes even more suffering,” explains Hospicenursepenny. For José González, a psychologist who specializes in grieving processes, our society has a phobia of death. “As all phobias, we need to work on looking at fear face to face.”
Not everything in Deathtok revolves around managing the end of life. In the account Mimithemortician, a student funeral director narrates her routine, from the shoes she wears to embalm and the needles she uses to empty a body to the music she listens to on the way to work. Another popular profile is that of Lauren Eliza (Love.miss.lauren), who began posting about her spiritual encounters, but whose followers encouraged her to focus more on the intricacies of her job as a funeral director. She does so with large doses of black humor. She titles her clips with humor: “When the guests share too much in the mortuary,” or “If a woman dies with a tampon: do we take it out or leave it in? and “What if your head falls off?”
Some call this content insensitive. But Deathtokers’ goal is to normalize the truth behind the old saying: there’s a remedy for everything except death. “They say that mourning is pain plus time,” says González. “As long as it doesn’t fall into trivialization, I would also add humor.”