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A rare chance to break a taboo

15 May 2015

The Church should seize the moment to discuss death, argues Sandra Millar


THERE has been a significant cultural shift over the past few years in attitudes to talking about death. Nearly two-thirds of the over-50s now say that they are happy to talk about their funeral wishes, and only a fifth say that they would not want to talk about the private matter of a funeral, in results from the research company Mintel last year.

Extensive qualitative research about attitudes to death and fu-nerals, conducted by the market-research agency Esro on behalf of the Archbishops' Council in 2012, suggested that the public wants the Church of England to be bold in starting these conversations.

In the past few years, there has been a growth in café-style spaces for conversation to happen - such as Death Cafés, where people gather to drink tea and discuss mortality - and documentaries, dramas, and comedies that tackle death, dying, and funerals head on.

A couple of weeks ago a BBC TV prime-time comedy, Peter Kay's Car Share, involved an extended conversation about planning fu-nerals - a subject that might not have been raised a decade ago. Although the taboo about funerals is being challenged, the Church can seem strangely silent, in both the pulpit and the community.

Next week (18-24 May) is the sixth national Dying Awareness week, organised by Dying Matters, a coalition of 30,000 members, including the Church of England. It is designed to get the nation talking, and taking action around death. It encourages us to make plans about our funerals, and be more open in raising conversations with those we love. Members of congregations are well-placed to initiate and contribute to these conversations.

JUST over a year ago, Lichfield diocese piloted a fresh approach. Sixty people, lay and ordained, gathered in Stafford to think about how to get people talking about death and funerals. They went away to try out a new concept: GraveTalk, in which 35 parishes ran café-style events.

Each event involves setting up a space to look like a café, where refreshments are served. People gather in small groups at tables. Conversations are started using a pack of 52 specially written questions that cover topics ranging from attitudes to death to personal experiences. Anyone can pick up the first card, and, depending on how the conversation goes, the group can look at one or 50 questions.

There are no answers, just a space to talk. Facilitators make sure that the event is running smoothly, and that there is always tea and cake. The trial was researched in partnership with the University of Staffordshire, and the results were overwhelmingly positive: when we make the time and space, people will talk.

Since then, GraveTalk has been further developed and tested in four more dioceses. Events have been held with professionals, such as 60 Cruse bereavement counsellors, who were excited by the possibilities.

Others have used GraveTalk to get the PCC talking: "I gave it to them, and I went and made coffee while they started discussing it. And I just couldn't shut them up. When I came to draw them to a conclusion, they wanted to carry on. They thought it was absolutely brilliant. I was really surprised."

IT ALSO works well in the wider community - it only requires the Church to have confidence that it has permission to start such conversations going.

"Just set the plans: the first one we had was in Caffè Nero. . . The local press publicised it. . . I think [we had] about 17 or 18 people for the first one - a really interesting broad range of ages, right across the spectrum. . . We then followed that up with one in the library, where we had some people who'd come to the first one, then came to the second one," a priest from one of the trial parishes said.

GraveTalk questions can be deceptively simple, from "What does a roadside shrine mean to you?" to ones about grief and heaven. Experience suggests that those outside the Church are keen to get started, whereas clergy and lay leaders are usually more cautious. Yet the research that the Archbishops' Council has commissioned is clear: we have a unique opportunity to support the emerging conversation about death.

The C of E has immense experience here. Every week, it conducts about 3200 funerals, putting it in touch with an estimated 200,000 people who attend them. As church leaders, and as friends and neighbours, we know about being there for people during the long journey of bereavement - one that is unique for each person.

THE Church is also used to dealing with the big questions about life and death that are often triggered by such events. We can be alongside people as they explore their thinking, wherever that thinking takes them.

But we have not always been good at being at the cutting edge of opportunity. Right now, there is change in the air. Now is the moment when people are ready to talk about death, ready to plan ahead for a funeral, ready to think about practical and emotional issues.

This year, Dying Awareness week gives the Church an opportunity to speak boldly, preach, teach, and open up a space for a conversation.

The Revd Dr Sandra Millar is Head of Projects and Developments for the Archbishops' Council.

Information on setting up discussions on death is at www.gravetalk.org and www.dyingmatters.org.

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