Why We Need To Talk About death

06/10/2016 15:03

I'm going to die. It's something I've known for a while, as far back as I can remember in fact. I don't know how it's going to happen, or when, or why, but at some point I know it will. It's life's biggest certainty.

You're going to die too, of course. But then you know that, we all do. Aside from being born and being human, it's the one factor that unites us. An accepted inevitability. Why then, if it's something we know will come to us all, do we rarely talk about death?

A third of Britons think about death or dying at least once a week. Yet 77% of British adults find it difficult to talk about death. That's according to recent research undertaken by the Dying Matters coalition. We're clearly thinking about it - but why aren't we talking about it? Is death the last taboo?

"What do you want to happen at your funeral?" Not the question my sister was expecting to be asked on a casual Sunday catch-up. "Are you planning on bumping me off?" came the response. More of a case of morbid curiosity I explained, before she gave as short an answer as she could muster: buried with her husband, or with enough space for him to join her, after a church service. Yes to flowers and music, but no details as to what.

It felt like an unsatisfactory response. She clearly didn't want to talk about it, so I tried my husband instead.

Now, you might think this is a conversation we should already have had. Say, when we made the will we still haven't got around to doing. But like many people, actual living seems to have got in the way of confronting death, and his funeral wishes are as unknown to me as mine to him.

"Have you ever thought about dying?" Subtlety has never been my strong point, plus however you approach this conversation feels like a lead balloon. "What have you been watching?" was his immediate reaction, as if my philosophical tendencies are always preempted by an episode of whichever series I'm fixated on at the time. "I'm serious - do you ever think about death?" Statistically, there's a one in three chance he's thought about it in the last week, after all.

My husband is quite a literal person and wants to know whose death he's meant to be thinking about - his, mine or someone else's? So I get him on the funeral subject and he isn't forthcoming with many answers, except that he's signed his body up to be donated to medical science when he dies. Which I suppose is a start.

The conversation is over quickly. Although he agrees we probably should think about the will again, if only to stop me talking about death I imagine. But when is the right moment to talk about it?

I consider all the other important people in my life who I've never spoken about death with; my mum, dad, brother, best and closest friends. I know the death of all these people will affect me in ways I don't know myself yet, and that's difficult to confront. Why put myself through that before I need to?

It's the emotional pressure around death I find the most difficult and the main reason I think people don't like to have those crucial conversations. Out of sight, out of mind.

But just like seemingly insignificant annoyances that your partner may do at home (the toilet has a lid for a reason!), emotional pressures can build up inside and if you never let them out they can explode out of you in ways completely unrecognisable both to you and the person on the receiving end (a tirade of toilet rolls being hurled down the hall at an unsuspecting, but guilty, toilet-lid-shunning husband, for instance). In the case of death, this often comes at the point a person close to us has died, and the emotional release can be so significant it can last indefinitely.

If we're not encouraged to talk about death, then we will keep it hidden. We all like an easy life, after all. But for practical and emotional reasons we need to confront death and when people do find a way to tackle the taboo, wonderful things happen.

In Hereford, there's a Death Cafe at The Courtyard Centre for the Arts, where people meet once a month to talk about issues surrounding death, the Stanford Letter Project encourages people to write letters to loved ones whilst still fit and healthy and, in New Zealand local groups meet for 'Coffin Club' where they build and decorate their own coffins.

Each of these projects cite friendship, laughter and living as part of their purpose, as well as working to dispel the deathly silence around death. Ultimately they're all starting a dialogue within communities about dying and living in a constructive and life-affirming way.

By confronting this elephant in society it helps people feel more comfortable in talking about death, it reduces the emotional pressure felt when even thinking about the subject and it encourages the conversation to continue at home, or in the park or the pub, with the people that matter the most, before it's too late.

And for the record, my requests are simple: buried or cremated with my husband (who I've since found out wants to be cremated, so whoever goes first wins for the both of us), with a colourful, lively funeral and free cider and gin in the pub afterwards for everyone with a story to tell, preferably funny.

Continue the conversation about death with some theatre... Left Luggage is a new play I've written about life, death and a lost suitcase. It premieres at The Space, London from 18th-22nd October 2016.