Why don't we talk about death?

Updated: May 30, 2019

Why would anyone want to talk about death? It certainly wasn’t high on my list of conversation starters until I started talking about death with my friend, Alex Collis, a humanist celebrant in Cambridgeshire.

Alex says ‘It is important to talk about death to open up a wider conversation, to demystify it and make it less remote. It is important to talk to family and friends before your death sothey know what you want.’

In her 2014 article in The Conversation, ‘Death matters – so why do the British hate talking about it?’, Yasmin Gunaratnam, Sociology Lecturer at Goldsmiths College, cites the results of a Comres poll that found a widespread reluctance among the British public to talk about or plan for death.

It is stressful to lose a friend or family member and then comes the pressure of planning a funeral. So how do we decide what to do in the moment when we are bereaved? How do we know what our loved one would have wanted? We talk about death.

The Death over Dinner project is an initiative that encourages conversations about death.The project’s about page declares ‘This project was created as a gift, an invitation and a simple set of tools to help families and friends address the basic human fact that we are all, at some point, going to die.’

The ‘tools’ are a step-by-step online guide to plan your dinner. The guide includes a prompt to determine who to invite, choices for your intention for the death conversation, a selection

of preparatory materials for your guests to read, watch and listen to, and a template dinner invitation as well as suggested conversation prompts.

Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

A project by Jon Underwood, Death Cafe is a social franchise where ‘...people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death’ with the objective ‘..to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.

Alex has firsthand experience of a Death Cafe, which she said was ‘A really enlightening and uplifting experience to be able to be in a safe space, talking about death with such a varied group of people from all walks of life’.

There is a growing trend of people moving away from traditional funerals to party-style celebrations of life, as documented by Jon Kelly in this BBC report. Some mourners are even encouraged to take photographs at the celebrations. For those with a terminal illness, planning their own celebration is an option – they can be sent off with their favourite poem or their football team’s song!

Decorating coffins is also gaining popularity. A recent example from Poppy’s funerals in London boasts a basket-style coffin topped with a pile of fresh vegetables, which were later chopped up and made into ‘...a splendid tribute soup’ for the mourners!

Some New Zealanders have embraced coffin decorating by starting a club for making and decorating coffins. Austa Somvichian-Clausen wrote about Coffin Club in her article, Kiwi Coffin Club Throws Glitter on the Idea of Dying - be sure to watch the musical video!

While the subject of death is still uncomfortable for many people, evidence suggests that there is growing interest in embracing the inevitability of death in positive and inspiring ways. Reflecting on the death of my own family members, I wonder what I might have said or done differently if I’d not found the experience so confronting and distressing.

Talking about death has made me think about what I would want and how I would want to be remembered. I’ve talked with my husband about organ donation, cremation versus burial,but not so much about end-of-life care, and not specifically about funerals, memorials or death itself. It’s time to talk about death. And start my funeral party play list.

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© 2019 by Alex Collis

(Portrait photography by James Murray-White, Logo by Carla Keen Design)