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The post-stiff-upper-lip era

11 March 2016

Tony Walters looks at how our society now approaches death

Mors Britannica: Lifestyle and death-style in Britain today
Douglas J. Davies
OUP £30
Church Times Bookshop £27


THIS expansive 428-page book offers a commentary on 20th- and 21st-century British death ways, informed by the author’s disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and theology, but drawing also on history, literature, philosophy, and psychology.

Douglas Davies moves easily across the canvas of both public rite and private experience, ranging from Remembrance Sunday and life-centred funerals to the Harry Potter novels. Davies seeks to capture something of the particularity of how Britain deals with death, and the part that religion, especially Christianity, plays in this.

While many scholars frame death within crude era constructs such as “modernity” or “post-Evangelicalism”, Davies frames death within national culture; different nations have different histories, institutions, and cultures, and mapping any one nation’s “cultural wisdom” (as Davies’ terms it) is inevitably complex and messy. He reveals the unique part played by the Establishment (monarchy, Parliament, Church, the military, the sporting world, the media, and celebrity); and he writes perceptively of an NHS that has come to focus British values of life and death just when the Churches were ceasing to do so. In ambition, I compare the book to Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957), and, in the United States, Habits of the Heart (1985) by Robert Bellah and others.

To paint on this wide canvas, Davies employs the colours offered by a number of anthropological theories, though some of his technical asides analysing the composition of these scholarly “colours” may not be easy reading for the non-specialist. Theory apart, the book offers much food for thought on Britain’s unique combination of Church, nation, and death.

For example, Davies shows how emotional restraint, in death as in life, used to be extensive, necessitated by the dangers of war and of industrialised work in mines, factories, and at sea. In the industrial era, emotional restraint was reflected not only in Anglican and Evangelical worship, but also in atonement theology, whose suffering/sacrifice motif resonated with national, yet class-based, values of duty, service, and sacrifice. Christ’s suffering and stoicism mirrored that of the soldier or industrial worker.

Now, in a safer society, emotional display is more acceptable, and even encouraged — in society and in Charismatic worship and its Holy Spirit theology. Where this now leaves the emotional restraint of Anglican worship and a theological focus on Christ’s sacrifice is a question that Davies causes us to ponder.

Or take gender. Surveys reveal massive gender differences: women are not only far more likely to be churchgoers than men, but also to believe in life after death, ghosts, angels, reincarnation, and the efficacy of mediums. Theology, developed largely by men, has largely ignored this experiential spiritual world of the very women who disproportionately populate the church’s pews.

Most significantly perhaps, women often sense the presence of the dead (83 per cent of British women, against only 17 per cent of men). Theology can struggle to articulate this experience, yet many worshippers have a sense of deceased relatives at the eucharist, finding “an affinity between . . . an absent/present Christ and an absent/present loved one”. Food for thought, indeed.


Tony Walter is Honorary Professor of Death Studies in the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath.


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