A recurring question I’ve been asked throughout this past year of teaching and research in the End of Life Studies field has been how far the global pandemic has brought about a more open acknowledgement of human mortality. This is an interesting take on what is a standard question for scholars of death and dying: is there a cultural ‘taboo’ on talking about death? Over the past year, I have been more commonly asked: has the high death toll of the pandemic brought discussions of human mortality out into the open again?
Early on in the first lockdown I was contacted by The Guardian newspaper to offer commentary on the reported increase in (virtual) Death Café attendance since the start of the pandemic. This was apparently proof of an increased desire to talk frankly about mortality during the pandemic. There has also reportedly been an increase in people writing Advance Directives, evidencing that for some the pandemic had triggered some element of thinking about and planning for death. In the UK, we have seen a National Day of Reflection (23rdMarch 2021) spearheaded by Marie Curie which was meant, again, to make us reflect on the sheer number of deaths which have occurred, as well as the deaths of particular individuals to bring the scale of loss into the realm of the comprehendible.
But these small scale examples of an increased engagement with mortality are not necessarily indicative of a paradigm ‘taboo breaking’ shift. In a recent discussion, my colleague, Dr Marian Krawczyk, argued that there was a good deal of dissociation going on, with people either unwilling or unable to face up to the high death toll from the pandemic, intent only on getting back to normal, moving on and proceeding, once again, to not think about death very much at all. As Scotland slowly re-opens this month, with shops and businesses re-opening this Monday (26th April), it’s worth considering the question: in order to get back to consuming stuff again, do we need to forget about death?
The dissociation which my colleague identified is between the empirical reality of mass death and a desire to return to ‘business as usual’ and ignore or deny any continued threat to life from the virus. There has been some speculation that this dissociation could be the result of the pandemic remaining quite abstract for many people, known only through the presentation of abstract statistics (the daily death toll) and their own experiences of lockdown confinement. There is also the idea that people are experiencing ‘compassion fatigue’ – again potentially leading to a desire to forget, move on and even generating a movement towards collective amnesia.
One of my doctoral students has recently been undertaking a literature review on the social value of funeral rites, starting with the ‘father of sociology’ – Emile Durkheim. For Durkheim (2008), religion’s functional role in society was to demarcate the ‘sacred’ realm from the ‘profane’ and funeral rites, symbols and iconography helped to do this in the case of death. In Durkheim’s functionalist view, religion helps society to reassert itself as transcendent after the death of an individual member: society worships itself in order to perpetuate the social order.
In our secular age, it is argued that consumerism has now taken over the transcendent role of religion and the characteristics and functions of the sacred realm (Belk 2013; Kurenlahti and Salonen 2018). Our economic system of mass consumption unifies people, creating bonds of social solidarity and ‘collective effervescence’ in the same way that religion does/did. So, in this sense, rather than viewing a desire to return to ‘business as usual’ as a form of dissociation from the mass death and collective grief wrought by COVID-19, we could view it as a re-engagement with a sacred realm through which society can show its transcendence over death, its endurance from the threat of the virus. Perhaps it is in shops and restaurants where we seek not to forget as such, but to heal and consolidate? After the liminal phase of lockdown, it is consumerism which acts as the dominant rite of reintegration in capitalist societies.
The coda to viewing consumerism through a restorative lens – society’s modern day ‘church’ offering collective solace after a year of social rupture – is that it will ultimately lead humanity to an altogether different magnitude of death, dying and grief: planetary demise and human extinction. What heals and provides solace today sows the seeds of humanity’s ultimate demise.
Belk, R.V. 2013.The Sacred in Consumer Culture. In: Consumption and Spirituality, edited by: Diego Rinallo, Linda Scott, Pauline Maclaran. Routledge: Oxon, UK.
Durkheim, E. 2008 Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by C. Cosman. Edited by M.S.Cladis. OUP Oxford; Abridged edition
Kurenlahti, M. and Salonen, A.O. 2018. Rethinking Consumerism from the Perspective of Religion. Sustainability, 10, 2454; doi:10.3390/su10072454