Changing Attitudes to Death Could Help Us Create a Fairer Society

'There is a tendency in our culture to avoid death at all costs.'

by Sophie K Rosa

8 April 2021

Family laying flowers on the grave
(Adobe stock)

“I actually googled, ‘What do you say to dying people?’,” recalls Bilal Nasim of the final days his family spent by his dying uncle’s bedside three years ago. 

No one knew how to talk about death, he noticed – even when it was right in front of them. “Everyone was too with their own grief… too scared,” to be able to engage with what was happening, he says. It was after this experience that Nasim decided to train as a death doula – someone who supports people with end-of-life experiences. 

As a result of the pandemic, more people around the world are contending with the reality of death. In the UK alone, the government’s mishandling of Covid-19 has led to around 130,000 lives lost

Funeral director Louise Winter – whose work has tripled during the pandemic – believes the “horrifying” magnitude of this death, however, is difficult to grasp through “a set of numbers given in a press conference”. 

Nasim agrees. “Quantifying it dulls the impact,” he says, because it’s simply impossible to truly conceive of death on such a large scale, especially by way of dispassionate state reporting. “You don’t get many leaders that can bring humanity to these things,” Nasim says, but the Tories are “not [even] trying”.

But while the scale of death may be difficult to comprehend, the pandemic itself has thrust the reality of death into our consciousness. For over a year, its spectre has been ever-present in official announcements, in the news, on social media, in our sickness, and in the illness and loss of those around us. 

Doctor Rita Issa says that the prevalence of Covid-19, along with its “unpredictability” as a virus, and the fact that people have been dying alone and isolated, has led to a “much more present fear of death”. This has manifested in patients “getting into spirals”, she says, convinced they are dying from Covid-19 and “calling ambulances constantly,” when they are in fact experiencing severe anxiety about death – because of the pandemic. 

This “heightened weight of death,” she says, is “especially scary in a society where we don’t have any sort of relationship with death”. Cultures throughout history and around the world have vastly different relationships to death – and the prevailing approach in the UK, like much of the west, is characterised by distance and denial. 

There is “a tendency in our culture to… avoid death at all costs,” says mortuary worker Gemma Norburn. This tendency, she believes, is “unhelpful and unhealthy”.

Our increased awareness of death due to the pandemic – whilst destabilising – could present an opportunity to transform our relationship to the end of life. Outside of her job as a mortuary worker, Norburn runs ‘death cafes’ – gatherings dedicated to speaking openly about dying, death and grief. The pandemic has sparked increased interest in the events. “It felt like it was enabling people to think about [death] and to talk about it,” she says. She noticed more willingness among death cafe attendees to reflect upon the significance of death and to speak openly about end-of-life wishes. 

Moving beyond the pandemic, Nasim believes that events such as death cafes, which he also runs, will be important spaces for processing our experiences, and emphasises the need for specific spaces where different groups of people feel comfortable. After attending death cafes as the only brown person, Nasim decided to start holding ‘confronting death’ workshops for people of colour. “Death has a different cadence to it, [in different] historical context[s],” he says. “It isn’t the same, talking about death to white people,” which can entail feeling ‘othered’.

Issa believes that the way we have “slowed down” this year may present an opportunity to become more attuned to “the cycles of life and death around us all the time, in nature… there for us to observe”. 

One aspect of this, she suggests, could be fostering more intergenerational communities – something that is more common where her family is from, in Lebanon. In the UK, “the phases of our lives are done in separation from each other,” she notes. People largely spend time with people close to their age, “completely disconnected” from old people, who are often isolated. This disconnection is related to neoliberal capitalism, she argues, that both idolises youth and keeps “us siloed because we work more and we consume more if we do everything separately”.

In many ways, the pandemic has served to highlight our separateness – but in mutual aid efforts, it has also opened up avenues for more mixed-age relationships in local communities. Issa points to other examples that could be pursued, such as building care services that incorporate both creches and elder care, “so that there is more mixing so that it doesn’t seem so alien… when people die”. 

Who dies when, of course, is not a politically neutral matter. Systemic oppression puts people at increased risk of premature death in direct and indirect ways. Low-wage frontline workers, Black and brown people, and disabled people have all lost their lives disproportionately during the pandemic. Earlier this year it was reported that Covid-19 patients with learning disabilities were being given ‘do not resuscitate’ notices. The risks people face, how life-saving resources get distributed, and the fact that “for some people, once they start dying, nothing [is] going to be done to bring them back,” says Issa, will necessarily affect the way in which different people relate to death.

The pandemic could also alter our relationship to grieving. In the UK, there is no statutory bereavement leave, leaving it to the discretion of employers to decide whether workers are allowed time off to mourn a loved one. Prolonged mourning is not good for profit. 

Since funerals have been restricted during the pandemic, people have been forced to rethink death rituals – which funeral director Winter believes is in many ways a good thing. Many people in the UK face ‘funeral poverty’ – where the cost of a funeral, on average around £4000, outstrips what they can afford. A recent report by the Competition and Markets Authority raised “serious concerns” about the funeral industry in relation to its lack of transparency around pricing and potential exploitation of customers’ “emotional vulnerability”. 

Winter founded her own funeral service with an awareness of this reality, seeking to offer a more ethical alternative – not only in relation to pricing but in terms of what a good send-off looks like. At traditional British funerals, in Winter’s view, people are usually not “particularly engaged… everyone [tries] to stifle their emotions… And then [goes] to the pub to have whiskey and sausage rolls”.  She believes that because people don’t “know how to talk about death,” British funerals are often formulaic, impersonal and more expensive than they need to be. 

Whilst holding funerals during the pandemic has presented challenges, she believes that the restrictions have in some cases made for “more intimate… more meaningful” funerals. For example, people have taken to collecting voice recordings from those unable to attend in-person funerals, meaning they may be reflecting upon and vocalising their grief in new ways. She says the fact that florists have been closed has enabled more community connection around mourning, with people turning to their neighbours to ‘crowdsource’ foliage for funerals. 

Nasim believes that, moving beyond the pandemic, how we process our grief individually and collectively will be decisive in what kind of future we can build. 

“The other side of this devastating coin, is that there is a groundswell of people who are feeling a lot,” he says – “I think that’s always an opportunity [for change]”. During the pandemic, Nasim’s ‘grief tending’ workshops have been oversubscribed. “One thing that feels like it’s changed is that people know that they’re holding grief,” he says, “and they’re more willing to somehow work with it.” Indeed, for some, lockdowns may have meant they have had more space to sit with their grief.  

The pandemic has “created this kind of numeraire,” a “common currency”, Nasim argues, that presents an opportunity for more of a public, communal approach to death and grief. Ordinarily, he says, “people hold death as a burden, a way to isolate” – instead, he suggests, a transformed relationship with death could be a way to build “community and communitas and connection with others”. Increased togetherness, in turn, could equal solidarity and power; to resist the systemic oppression and material conditions – under capitalism, under the Tories – that lead to premature and excess death.

Taking this opportunity we are presented with – to transform our relationship to death –  argues Nasim, is important not only for ourselves but for society as a whole. “I’m a bit scared of what a collective denial of this grief looks like,” he says. “I think, often, what collective denial looks like is fascism… either literal fascism, in the political sense, or individual fascism – the way in which we are violent [to each other] in the smaller ways.” A better relationship with death, he argues, has positive ramifications for how we approach life. 

For Issa, processing the grief of the past year involves not only recognising death, but also the ways our living has been restricted. She hopes that as time goes on, people’s fears around the pandemic can “stabilise” – allowing us not only to build better relationships to death but to return to life. 

Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media, she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and Buzzfeed.

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