I have been on the phone for the past hour to a journalist writing an article on Death Cafés and the movement to get people talking about death. Is this, she asked, because death in our society is repressed? Is there a taboo against talking about it? “No,” I answered, “if we need to talk about death, it’s for other reasons.”
The Revival of Death
I have had many such conversations with journalists since I published, exactly 20 years ago, The Revival of Death, a sociological book analysing the ‘revival’ of interest in death and dying. Today’s journalist, like every journalist I’ve spoken to, supposed this revival is just five or ten years old. Each asks about repression and taboo.
In my 1994 book, I showed how there is indeed a need to discuss death, dying and bereavement, but not because death is a natural thing for humans to discuss which has somehow got repressed in contemporary Britain. Rather, I argued that dying, funerals, mourning and afterlife beliefs are continually evolving, and we find ourselves nowadays in new situations in which new preparations for dying, new kinds of funerals, new ways of handling grief, and new ways of talking about the dead need to be – and indeed are being – developed. And to develop them, we need to talk – within our families, and within society at large. We know that the death we might hope for, and indeed that our granny experienced, is unlikely to be the death we ourselves will encounter. Through such talk, individuals, families, and society create and re-create ways to die, to funeralise, to mourn. Let me give four examples – dying, funerals, grief, and images of the afterlife.
20th century dying
In the Neolithic age, humans stopped wandering the earth as hunter-gatherers, settled down as farmers – and promptly caught diseases from each other and from their animals. Since then, most humans have died of infectious diseases. These typically take a couple of days to a couple of weeks to kill, framing the ars moriendi, the craft of dying, created by various world religions. Only since the mid twentieth century, with clean water and antibiotics, can most of us expect to die in old age of degenerative diseases such as heart disease, lung disease or dementia, or other diseases such as cancer whose incidence increases with age. These diseases typically take a few months or years to kill, so the challenge for dying people is not simply to sort out their material and spiritual affairs, but how to live in the meantime, in varying health, for months or years rather than days. This is what the hospice movement, with its motto ‘Adding life to years, not years to life’, is all about – a new ars moriendi for the 20th/21st centuries. This movement has helped countless 50 and 60 year olds dying of cancer; the challenge now is how to add life to years when you are 90 and frail and have dementia.
There’s something else about many degenerative diseases. Modern medicine can diagnose them earlier and earlier, and can treat them, but never definitively cure them. Add a pacemaker, remove a lump, and people may live many more decades, eventually dying of something else. But in the meantime, they are like the subjects of medieval woodcuts depicting the peasant or priest going about their business with the Grim Reaper hovering behind with his sickle, about to cut them down – not with medieval cholera or plague, but with a heart attack or the return of cancer. Millions of middle aged people and those close to them live like this. It’s a new situation, one we were not prepared for by either traditional religion or the heroic conquest of infections. So we need to talk – to our loved ones, to our GP, to our politicians, to our death café mates – about how best to live in this new world.
Churchgoing and Sunday school attendance rapidly declined in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. But that doesn’t mean we all became atheists. Folk and vernacular beliefs are continually re-constructed. People may want funerals that celebrate the deceased’s life, with the Lord’s Prayer chucked in for good measure – or to keep Aunt Agnes quiet. By the 1990s, the pressure on funerals was really mounting. The bottom line of clergy-led funerals was religion. The bottom line of funerals led by officiants of the British Humanist Association (BHA) was atheism. This failed a lot of families who, unless they could find a minister prepared to ditch much of his (back then, it usually was his) religion or a BHA officiant prepared to defy HQ and add a prayer, could not have the funeral they wanted. But over the past dozen years, most parts of England (less so Scotland and Wales) now have grown celebrants whose bottom line is the deceased’s character and faith, however minimal or unorthodox, not the celebrant’s faith. Even clergy-led funerals now typically look back, celebrating the deceased’s life, as well as forward to the life hereafter. To prepare these tailor-made funerals, celebrant and family talk – about the deceased and what s/he meant to the family. This helps kick-start a key part of grieving, talking about the deceased with others who knew the deceased. Nowadays, this conversation continues online as well as face-to-face.
In the trenches of WW1, when a soldier saw his mate blown up beside him, he had to ‘Pack up his troubles in his old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile.’ There was a war to be fought, and stoicism was needed to get through it. Same for the mothers and fiancées back home. Same in the depression of the 1930s. Same in the Blitz – except that the Blitz witnessed an extra factor: Winston Churchill. He insisted that the newsreels depicted muscular air raid wardens digging out elderly women from the rubble and handing them cups of tea, with not a tear in sight. He needed the Brits to know they could take it, and he needed Hitler to know he could not bomb us into submission. This was possibly the UK’s most effective PR campaign of the 20th century, teaching us that the way to deal with grief and loss is to grit our teeth and carry on.
Only in the 1960s, after twenty years of peace and security, could a more expressive attitude start to develop, the idea that it’s good to talk, to cry, to show your emotions, not least the emotions of grief. A tipping point was marked by Martin Bashir’s famous 1995 Panorama interview in which Princess Diana tearfully admitted ‘there were three of us in this marriage’. Half the nation, predominantly the older half, was appalled – Britons did not get through two world wars by blubbing into their handkerchiefs. The other, younger (and probably more female) half cheered that at last an establishment role model had shown the nation that it’s okay to be vulnerable. Now TV coverage of bombings displays gore, anguish, grief. Vulnerability has become more cool than stoicism.
Unlike many today, I do not think expressing your feelings is necessarily healthier than containing them, or vice-versa. What I do think is that containing emotions is psychologically, socially and politically necessary in high death rate societies (and many pre-industrial societies had to display stoicism in the face of frequent, and often violent, deaths); while expressing them can be helpful when there is peace, security and leisure.
Talking about the dead
In the mid 20th century, Britain’s most popular afterlife belief, or least the most popular way of talking about the dead, was the eternal soul. The idea was that humans comprise body and soul. Body is mortal, and decomposes on death; soul is eternal, and goes to heaven. There the soul will be joined in due course by the souls of loved ones. We can see how this could provide comfort to the elderly widow who herself has but a short time left on earth; she can live her remaining time looking forward to joining him in heaven. With increasing longevity, and a divorce rate yet to take off, the mid twentieth century witnessed longer marriages than before or since – so there were, and still are, many such widows.
I first noticed a change in 2009 when Jade Goody died. The Sun newspaper’s online memorial received 1106 tributes. Only 13 referred to ‘soul’, 9 of which were the formulaic ‘May your soul rest in peace’. But 167 referred to angels:- Jade being with the angels, entertaining them in death as she had previously entertained the living; and Jade becoming a guardian angel who could continue to look after her two little boys. Subsequently, I have noticed this language being used more and more, especially online, by those mourning a baby, young child, grandparent, a young peer – by mourners who themselves expect to live many decades. Deferred gratification is not the order of our day, so waiting 80 years to join your deceased mum in heaven is little comfort. But the idea that she can continue to care for you, that could provide some comfort; likewise that a stillborn baby is looking after his older brothers and sisters. In an era of hyper-consumption, moreover, sitting quietly on a cloud awaiting the arrival of the next family member may feel not a little boring; but continuing as oneself, having fun with the angels, now that’s more like it.
This fashion of picturing the dead as angels is new, and it is not formally taught. Most of the (many) popular angel books, like traditional Christian teaching, state that angels were never human. The idea that my child, peer or granddad is now an angel is co-constructed by mourners – a meme, an idea rapidly spread and developed online, a vernacular religion for an online age.
Death is not taboo in contemporary Britain. Sure, there are conversational norms governing talking about death, just as there are about sex, madness or drug addiction. I don’t talk to my students about what I did in bed last night, but that doesn’t mean sex is a taboo topic in our society. Likewise, conversational norms about what and when to talk about death do not mean death is a taboo topic in Britain. We do need to talk about death, and many people are doing so, not because it’s been taboo, but because we have to evolve new ways to manage dying, funerals and mourning – ways appropriate for prolonged elderly dying with reduced capacity, ways that fit a secular-ish society, ways that work for a nation that has enjoyed, at least at home, over sixty years of peace.
Professor Tony Walter is a sociologist who has written and taught widely on social aspects of death, dying and loss. He is currently director of the University of Bath’s Centre for Death & Society http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas
Pat Jalland, Death in war and peace: loss and grief in England 1914-1970. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Allan Kellehear, A social history of dying. Cambridge University Press 2007.
Tony Walter, The Revival of Death. Routledge, 1994.
Tony Walter, A new model of grief. Mortality, 1996, 1(1), 7-25.
Tony Walter, Angels not souls. Religion, 2011, 41(1), 29-51. http://opus.bath.ac.uk/22949/