Talking about death and dying is often a very serious conversation. It’s a stressful topic most people want to avoid. However, Gail Rubin, the Doyenne of Death®, uses humor to help people plan ahead before they face a difficult time. In our latest installment of Conversations with Funeral Directors, we spoke with Gail Rubin, CT, to learn more about her approach to death. She’s a Certified Thanatologist, celebrant, Chevra Kadisha volunteer, and author of three books, including A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die.

The Doyenne of Death® – Using Humor to Talk About Death

Becoming The Doyenne of Death®

Gail’s professional background was in public relations and event planning. She didn’t drift towards the deathcare industry until after her second marriage in 2000. She planned a Jewish-Western themed wedding. It inspired her to write a creative life cycle event book, which she was going to title Matchings, Hatchings and Dispatchings.

This led to a monthly feature in the local newspaper about life cycle events. The stories about death and funerals generated the biggest reader response. While there are plenty of creative wedding planning books, there wasn’t much on deathcare event planning. So, she she focused on funeral planning and wrote A Good Goodbye, which brings a light touch to a heavy subject.

“Laughter releases endorphins into the bloodstream, which helps melt our resistance to talking about death,” she explained. Writing the book changed the course of her career. She entered the deathcare industry in 2010, but not as a funeral director.

Gail is certified funeral celebrant, and part of the Chevra Kadisha or holy society. The Chevra Kadisha is a volunteer organization of Jewish men and women who see to it that the bodies of deceased Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition and are protected from desecration until burial. She also serves on the cemetery committee for her congregation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Gail trademarked the title, The Doyenne of Death®, which was suggested by her brother, Mitch. She loved the way it sounded and knew the term was often used in The New York Times. “It wasn’t until after I spent all that money on registering the trademark that I realized most Americans don’t know what a doyenne is,” she said.

A doyenne is a woman who is considered senior in a group with specialized skills or knowledge, someone who is all about educating–which Gail definitely is.

“Talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, talking about funerals and end-of-life issues won’t make you dead”

This is Gail’s tagline. Immediately upon reading it, you can’t help but laugh, and that’s exactly what she’s after. Some of her other laugh lines include:

  • “It won’t kill you to pre-plan your funeral.”
  • “Despite great advances in medical care, humans do still have a 100% mortality rate.”
  • And, on the topic of using a credit card to charge funeral expenses: “Think of the points, the miles!”

Unfortunately, we humans tend to avoid talking about the topic of death. Renowned sociologist Dr. Ernest Becker explained why in his landmark book, The Denial of Death. Dr. Becker created the Terror Management Theory, which explains that death is the ultimate terror for humans. We can’t bear the thought of not existing, and strive to ensure immortality through physical and philosophical ways.

Becker noted that it takes good self-esteem to consider your own mortality. Studies have estimated two-thirds of the adult population has low self-esteem. Gail believes it’s the one-third of adults with high self-esteem who are the ones planning ahead for their funerals.

Bringing The Conversation to the Public

Gail has been bringing conversations about death, funeral planning and end-of-life issues to the public since 2010. More and more people are coming out and wanting to learn about issues relating to death. At the annual Frozen Dead Guy Days Festival in Nederland, Colorado, Gail hosts the Newly Dead Game (based on the classic TV show, The Newlywed Game) and shows the documentary, Grandpa’s in the TUFF Shed. The game is designed to test how well you know your partner’s last wishes. More than 950 people came to see the film and game sessions over the course of the weekend.

She also pioneered the Before I Die Festival in Albuquerque in 2017. During the first festival, 600 people participated in 22 events over six days. At a panel discussion with local funeral directors, 77 people attended with lots of really good questions. The big factor contributing to the high attendance was that people could get their questions answered without having to step foot in a funeral home where they could be sold on different items. 

A Changing Industry

The death care industry is constantly evolving. So much so, that Gail is working on a second edition of her book, A Good Goodbye. More people are recognizing her efforts to bring the topic of death out of the closet. She also credits Caitlin Doughty, a mortician, author, blogger, and YouTube personality known for advocating death acceptance.  Combined with the reform of Western funeral industry practices, the gap is being bridged.

 

The Doyenne of Death® – Using Humor to Talk About Death
Gail Rubin (left) with Caitlyn Doughty (right)

Gail is excited when she gets feedback from the public, saying “thank you for doing what you’re doing.” There aren’t many people like her who use humor to deal with the subject, but we think Gail is doing a great job.


The Doyenne of DeathGail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®, is a speaker who helps get end-of-life and funeral planning conversations started with a light touch on a serious subject. The author of three books on end-of-life issues, she also hosts the award-winning TV/DVD series, A Good Goodbye, as well as an Internet radio program.