When did you last talk about death?

When did you last talk about death?

The British don’t talk about death, says a survey, because they fear it. So if you are going to have a chat about, for want of a better word, dying, how might it go?

It’s got to be the party pooper to end them all: “Hi. What’s your name? What do you do? Do you think about death much?”

According to theology think-tank Theos, we don’t talk about death enough. ( http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/Britons_fearful_of_dying,_new_study_reveals_.aspx?ArticleID=3112&PageID=14&RefPageID=5)

If we did, then maybe half of us would not fear death as a survey this week found.

So the Magazine decided to take Theos at its word – by inviting its director to have a chat about death with a expert on ageing.  

Paul Woolley, 32, is director of Theos, which conducted the research


Malcolm Johnson, 65, is a professor of gerontology at the University of Bath


Paul: Death today is handled very differently from the way it was in the past. For example, in the Victorian period, it was common practice for people when they had died to be kept in the home that they lived in, in an open coffin. Relatives paid their respects and would see a dead body, so death in terms of the frequency of it and people’s day-to-day contact with it was higher and less removed.

Malcolm: It would certainly be healthier if people talked about the coming of the end of their lives and what they feel about it, what they fear about it and what they want to do. For the first time in human history, death is in the province of old age. And that is why things have changed and as this process went on in the last century, we became a death-denying society, so we stopped talking about death and handed death over to the doctors and the funeral directors. And all those public rituals that were difficult but healthy and all the talk and all the cultural experience fell away and we are only now just beginning to return to some of that.

Paul: It’s interesting people reacted in different ways to the death of Jade Goody, how it was presented in the media. People responded both positively and negatively to that but in general, in the research we’ve done, people found that helpful. A moment in someone’s life that is usually pushed to the margins and hidden, took centre stage. There was some voyeurism, but people identified with what she was going through. We also need to encourage people to have conversations about these subjects too.

Magazine: Fair enough. How might be such a conversation begin?

Malcolm: It depends who you are. If you’re a young person and you’re facing death then you will talk about it, as Jade Goody so evidently did, but deaths under 40, the majority of them are road traffic accidents, so there’s no talking time and no preparation. Then 40-60, people have life-threatening illnesses and on the whole, they talk. But the overwhelming majority of deaths are older people and I can tell you from my own research that when older people say to their families, ‘I want to talk to you about my funeral’, which is a way of wanting to talk about death, a typical response is ‘Oh, you don’t want to talk about that stuff, that’s depressing, you’ll go on for a long time’. So if we can create opportunities with people who will listen carefully and be non-judgemental, then you can give them a real lift, because as older people face what we call finitude, the coming of the end of life, many of them become very, very anxious and full of guilt and they’ve got no-one to talk to.

Magazine: So organising the practical side of things is one way to broach the subject, but what about the spiritual dimension?

Paul: We found in other research that if you ask people about their beliefs in terms of the after-life and the existence of some sort of life after death the majority of people think there is something but it is this issue of uncertainty that creates anxiety. So it’s not that they rule out the idea that there’s life after death or the idea of a soul or heaven, but they are not sure. None of us knows what the process of death is like and because it’s unknown, that creates anxiety within us.

Malcolm: You’ve stated that very well. Magazine: Do you think about your own death much?

Paul: I probably do more than the average person and some of the issues drawn out in this research are ones I identify with – the uncertainty and what the process of dying looks like. Ultimately where I’m coming from theologically, I have hope. I believe in the hope of the creation of a new heaven and new Earth. I believe in Resurrection and that shapes my attitude towards death but it doesn’t take away the fact that death can be a very painful process. Death is painful when we lose people we love and we don’t know how our own death will come about. And when we stop to think about that it can cause anxiety.

Malcolm: I think about it on a personal level when a friend of my age dies. That’s quite challenging. Or I’m just a month off the age when my father died and I’m beginning to feel slightly queasy about that. I say this because I think it’s the personal cues that make you think about it, something you hear, a bit of gossip about someone you knew, reading something in the newspaper. But on the whole it’s not something that turns you upside down unless it’s very close. When it’s very close it does turn you upside down. So I think I’m saying similar things to you but in a different way because I think I’m a lot older than you.

Paul: When we encounter death, when a relative dies or a relative is terminally ill, that causes us to reflect on death and our own mortality but that is usually something that we push to the back of our minds. There are practical issues too. It’s striking that in the research, you would expect as people age they would put in place arrangements for their funeral. But the figures are small and over half the people had not made a will.

Malcolm: The great majority of people die intestate, without a will. That shows that people worry about death but feel unable to do anything about it. They somehow feel paralysed by the choices and never make themselves go and do it. The more we talk about it, the more people will realise it’s not that difficult to go off and write a will or even buy a funeral in advance.

Paul: People feel like they need permission to talk about these things and feel odd in raising the subject. But it’s important in every sense, important practically for their relatives to deal with the consequences of their deaths and also spiritually and emotionally for themselves.

Malcolm: There are people in our society who are capable of spiritual thinking but don’t have the language for it but what they do want is what religion used to give in the past – forgiveness, redemption, relief from guilt – and as people get very old and close to death they realise that the opportunities to put things right have all gone away and that puts them in a state of acute anxiety. Beneath the surface of the lack of discourse, the lack of open conversation, is a huge amount of anxiety, much of which could be diminished or even removed, by careful listening.

Paul: One stat I found very striking and I’d like to get your thoughts on was that 37% of 18-24 year olds had seen a dead body, which seems incredibly high.

Malcolm: I think your data might not be all that strong there. The great majority of people don’t see a dead body until well into middle age, usually in hospital. Not many young people have seen a dead body. They haven’t seen death other than death in the media, which is everywhere in films, television and so on. So people are familiar with death but not the reality of it and the reality of it often shocks them because they are not prepared for it.

Paul: You’re right. Because we don’t see dead bodies like we did in the past, when we do in the later stages of life, that in itself can be quite a frightening encounter. It’s frightening because we don’t have the resources to cope.

Malcolm: But it’s not frightening. Most people who die are old, and when you see an old person who’s died, usually they’ve died a quite straightforward death. When you see them, they are not contorted, they are at ease and if their body is laid in a composed way, it looks very calm and often very serene and it’s not threatening and it’s not distressing, unless you’ve got the distress in your head before you go. I think it’s important to say that most deaths are not frantic, they’re not acute, they’re not full of pain.

Paul: There is often a natural time to die and perhaps one of the challenges for our culture is we seek to avoid it at all costs and we seek to delay the inevitable which is completely understandable but maybe we don’t see that there is a time when it is natural to die.

Malcolm: My very latest research shows that dying in a care home is almost better than any other setting. Nearly a quarter of older people die in care homes every year. Because it’s 24 hours a day, because they welcome families and because there is an embedded “caringness” and none of the frantic atmosphere of an acute hospital, people die peacefully and with people around them that they know. So I’d like to commend care homes who get such bad press and you see something that needs to be cherished and nurtured and not just criticised.

Paul: So death need not be as scary as people think?

Malcolm: It need not be, no, but we shouldn’t say that all deaths are serene and wonderful. We can do other things to make death less physically and psychologically painful, but we’ll never be able to eliminate all of that. So it’s not surprising that people feel anxious about that but the reality is that when most people die, they die without great anxiety and – to use a word we use a lot – peacefully, so their fears in a statistical sense are much overdone

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