Why you need to change your outlook on death

Fiona Thomas

Could a new way of looking at death be the secret to making peace with mortality?

ANTONIA BECK is an independent creative producer and award-winning theatre-maker who has worked with a wide range of nationally and internationally renowned artists, producers and venues across the West Midlands. In 2011 she was studying when she met another theatre-maker called Lucy Nicholls. They instantly became friends. After knowing each other for a relatively short period of time it became clear that one topic of conversation repeatedly bobbed to the surface whenever they were in the same room. That topic was death.

The two young women share a deeprooted fear known as “death anxiety”. For Antonia, it started at a young age. As a child she tried to understand the overwhelming concept of life and death, she worried about losing her family members, tried to imagine what a funeral might look like and wanted to know exactly what would happen in those final moments. How does a body—a person—just cease to exist? Like most people in the western world, Antonia lived in a family where death was not spoken about openly and so for many years, her questions went unanswered.

Antonia Beck and Lucy Nicholls star in The Death Show

 

In the same year that Antonia and Lucy first met, Caitlin Doughty uploaded episode one in her video series, “Ask a Mortician”. Doughty had been in the funeral industry for four years and was a registered mortician working in California. Her aim was clear. She wanted to bring mortality back into modern culture. Since then she has uploaded almost 200 short videos on topics such as cremation, coffins, body farms, dressing a corpse and dying alone. She did a TEDx Talk in 2016 called “The Corpses That Changed My Life” which has been viewed over 900,000 times. Her book The Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is an entertaining memoir which is purposefully written to make the reader confront their own mortality.

Although “death acceptance” and “death awareness” are phrases that have been used by scholars since the Seventies, the term “death positive” is widely considered to have been popularised by Doughty, whose book debuted at #14 in the New York Times list in 2014.

Mortician Caitlin Doughty, author of The Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Death positivity is a social movement that encourages people to talk openly about death, dying and corpses. Many people call the movement gruesome or morbid. This common reaction goes some way to explaining exactly why these conversations need to be had more regularly. Death positivity is not a bunch of goths wearing black and decorating their homes with skulls. It’s not even about playing down the sadness of death. With grief comes a broad spectrum of emotions, many of which are difficult to deal with alongside the logistics of arranging a funeral and putting someone else’s affairs in order. Shouldn’t we be trying to make that process as easy as possible?

As creatives, Antonia and Lucy decided that exploring their fascination through the arts was a no-brainer, and were soon awarded funding towards a research and development phase where they spent six months investigating death. As part of the project, hundreds of conversations took place in funeral homes, crematoriums, at celebrant training courses and at hospice bedsides. They turned up to a regular meet-up known as the Death Cafe, where people are invited to drink tea, eat cake and ask questions. Antonia found the process emotionally draining, but after the dust had settled she says the improvement in her relationship with death was undeniable and has informed their latest stage production, The Death Show.

"There were cardboard coffins fashioned into ball pits for children to play in"

“The show we have now is about our journey through death anxiety and what we’ve learned and what we know now. We feel so privileged to have seen what we have seen. We had a backstage tour of a crematorium! Our death anxiety hasn’t gone but we are so much better informed and I think that shows that if we as a society spoke about it more, maybe we would all be able to cope better.”

Society isn’t necessarily ready to talk about death, and Antonia acknowledges this as she recalls that most of the end of life patients they approached during their research declined to take part in conversations about mortality. Dying Matters Awareness Week takes place during the month of May and is growing year on year, but some members of the death and dying industry are finding new ways to thoughtfully drip feed the topic into people’s lives.

Louise Winter and Anna Lyons created LifeDeathWhatever, an initiative which promotes death acceptance (as opposed to positivity) and aims to make death a normal part of life. It began with a festival which took place in a number of National Trust buildings that were open to visitors. Louise and Anna took this opportunity to discreetly pose questions that many of the visitors hadn’t planned on discussing that day, or perhaps ever. There were paintings to mull over and workshops to take part in. There were cardboard coffins fashioned into ball pits for kids to play in. The feedback they received was incredibly positive.

 

This seemingly lighthearted approach through cultural events continues to be an effective way to make death a more accessible topic, especially when combined with the element of surprise. Louise says, “People were having quite profound experiences because originally they had arrived to look at the house, then ended up engaging with death itself… People of all ages enjoyed it including those that wouldn’t normally have gone to something like that. There were some people who were very reluctant and sceptical and by the end of it they said that they were really glad they stayed. They felt like they had learned something.”

"This week we had a funeral and we actually got to meet the man before he died"

For Louise, who is a progressive funeral director based in London, offering learning opportunities is a key step in helping people cope with the stress of losing a loved one. Most people think that choosing a pre-made funeral package is the only option, but she is keen to advise people that each experience can be personalised. Her services don’t often use traditional coffins, but instead offer interactive versions where people can write messages on tags. Another option is to incorporate a flower laying ceremony. When people engage with death and are realistic about mortality, the grieving process and funerals themselves can take on a whole new meaning.

Louise Winter with a natural coffin

“This week we had a funeral and we actually got to meet the man before he died,” says Louise. “He asked lots of questions about what would happen, how we would take care of him, where he would be and he really wanted us to take care of him. It felt really amazing to be involved in every step of the process and I really hope that his family took comfort in that.”

On a more practical level, having the forethought to discuss funeral plans can actually save you money. According to a study from Sunlife, the cost of the average funeral now stands at just under £5,000. The growing realisation seems to be that some companies are capitalising on vulnerable people and overcharging for unnecessary items. For example, did you know that there is no legal requirement to use a hearse to transport the deceased? There is also no requirement for an actual coffin for burial—the body can be placed in a simple cloth instead. Other expensive add-ons include embalming, orders of service and floral arrangements.

 

As Caitlin Doughty says in her TEDxTalk, “the death care industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and they aren’t interested in families regaining control over death”.

There’s no tried and tested way to start a conversation about death, but the online world can provide opportunities to connect with people who are well-versed in the topic. Visit deathcafe.com to find a local meet-up where you can find out more from open-minded people. I spoke to Laura Creaven from Birmingham who has been to a few Death Cafes and says that it’s made her relationship with death feel more normal.

“My family aren’t the most talkative about emotions but we are more practical about talking about funerals. I know exactly what my mum and her husband want when they die.”

You may not find all the answers you’re looking for about death itself but if you’re looking for peace of mind, then the death positivity movement is waiting for you with open arms.