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Pandemic brought death closer, but people still hold it at arm’s length, says Theos report

17 April 2023


Cover image from the Theos report Ashes to Ashes

Cover image from the Theos report Ashes to Ashes

THE Covid pandemic raised the profile of death in public conversation, but people still avoid talking about death in private, a new report from Theos has found.

This is having a negative effect on bereavement which church leaders should counter through better pastoral and theological practice, the think-tank says.

Its report, Ashes to Ashes: Beliefs, trends, and practices in dying, death, and the afterlife, was published on Monday, co-written by Dr Marianne Rozario of Theos and Dr Lia Shimada of the Susanna Wesley Foundation.

Broadcasts of daily death tolls, lockdown funerals, and the ceasing of common practices and rituals in both end-of-life circumstances and post-death between 2020 and 2022 has led to a marked difference in language surrounding death pre- and post-pandemic, the report says.

An estimated 9.7 million people were unable to attend a funeral during UK lockdowns. In a 2021 YouGov study of 2164 UK adults (16+), one quarter reported that the pandemic had affected their views on death. Almost half (46 per cent) said that they thought more about death than before.

The topic has remained in the public consciousness after the deaths of prominent figures such as the late Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Benedict XVI, the report says.

“Despite the upsurge of death in public conversations and in popular culture, most of us do not think too deeply about the uncomfortable reality of our own mortality or of those we love. This inability to talk about our own death results in us being unprepared for it.”

The findings are based on in-depth interviews with 64 people in the UK — 33 individuals and 31 focus-group participants — between June and November 2022, including academics, faith leaders and representatives, funeral directors, charity leaders, health professionals, and community organisers. Of these, 18 were Christian, two were Muslim, and two were Jewish and Buddhist. A further three were non-religious (agnostic, humanist, or atheist); the remainder were unknown.

The report also draws on several previous public studies on death and dying.

The title research topics of dying, death, and the afterlife are analysed by chapter in the report.

On dying, it finds that the phenomenon of “death discomfort” — people unable or lacking the confidence to speak about death — has had profound implications on bereavement, leaving people ill-equipped to offer support.

One “exasperated” priest is quoted: “If you won’t say the word ‘dying’, how are you going to manage it?”

But the recent “death-positive movement” has led to some improvement, Theos says, with the creation of death cafés — networks to talk about death — leading to conversations about what a “good death” might look like.

A “good death” was commonly understood by report participants to be one with no pain or suffering, the individual surrounded by family, at home, in peace, and prepared. Yet there was evidence that fear of death actually contributed to a lack of preparedness. Recent polls suggest that just over one third of UK adults (35 per cent) had written a will. Theos also quotes research from 2021 which found that only 14 per cent of Britons had expressed their end-of-life preferences and wishes.

The term “good death” was not without issue. It was also found by participants variously to be “vague”, “hierarchical”, and “unhelpful”. Different interpretations of the defining characteristics of a good death were also given: for example, a “peaceful end” for some Christian participants meant “having specific religious rituals adhered to”, where for others it meant “having the dying person’s affairs in order on a practical level”.

Among the trends identified in the research was the increased popularity of cremation (up from 71 per cent in 1996 to 78 per cent in 2019), partly due to the lower cost compared to burials. Direct cremation (without a funeral) rose to 18 per cent in 2021. “The scattering or storing of cremated remains is also a growing practice,” the report found.

Alternatives to funerals — such as “celebrations of life” that “incorporate a larger spiritual spectrum” — were also trending. “Services that once would have been Christian by default are increasingly led by secular celebrants rather than by clergy.”

One funeral director is quoted: “It’s much more likely now for people to feel able to wear yellow or have party poppers or everyone in the congregation gets a bar of chocolate.” Secular songs were also more popular than hymns.

Though there were fewer polls for researchers to draw on concerning attitudes to the afterlife, they found a wide range of religious and spiritual beliefs. “While established religions have an understanding of the afterlife and the concept of the soul, among faith leaders and believers this understanding is often diverse and amorphous,” it says.

A 2021 YouGov poll suggested that one third (33 per cent) of UK adults believed in the afterlife (30 per cent believed that heaven existed); 42 per cent did not.

On funeral director said: “People will say: ‘Oh, I’m not religious at all. I don’t believe in God and all that.’ I would say that almost 100 per cent of those people wanted to believe, or believed, that something happens after [death]. I can’t think of anyone who actually got up there and said: ‘I believe death is the end.’”

On this, the report concludes that a “decidedly amorphous understanding of the afterlife from a Christian perspective suggests the need for increased Christian theological education and thinking on the subject and its communication to its believers.”

A further research strand in the report found that “churches and faith communities have an important role to play in offering both pastoral care and theological accompaniment to the dying and the bereaved.”

The report explains: “Pastorally, churches and faith communities support and care for us when death approaches. Theologically, churches and faith communities help us prepare for death by encouraging wider conversation about the meaning of life and death, helping people explore themes of hope, and the continued existence after physical death.

“Churches and faith communities could improve their practice through facilitating increased conversation about, and education on, dying, death, and the afterlife, and equipping their leaders and representatives to develop better pastoral and theological practice.”

The report concludes: “Our report began by considering death as a topic that is increasingly spoken about in public yet rarely discussed personally. Death need not be shrouded in silence.

“Churches and faith communities have a real opportunity to re-weave the shroud. By (re)integrating the role of religion in death, they can facilitate more open, honest, and life-giving understandings of dying, death, and the afterlife. In achieving this, we can strive to become a society that can die well and, in turn, live well.”

In his foreword, the broadcaster Edward Stourton writes: “As someone with a slow-moving but incurable cancer, I welcome the greater openness about death this report identifies. It is certainly true, as the report finds, that many people are turning to new and more secular ways of celebrating the memory of those they loved; but most religious traditions can call on the experience of centuries of responding to the reality of death, and they have much to offer in a debate of the kind Ashes to Ashes seeks to encourage.”

He reflects that “the pandemic was a powerful lesson in how much a good death — or at least a decent and dignified farewell — matters to those left behind.” And adds: “Religion — and I am sure this applies just as fully to the United Kingdom’s minority faiths as it does to Christianity — still seems to be a source of strength we turn to when confronted with the enormous enigma of death.”

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