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Why We Should Talk More About Death

13/04/2015 15:53 BST | Updated 10/06/2015 10:59 BST

We are all going to die. And yet if there is another topic of conversation to be added to list of things one knows better than to discuss in polite company - religion, politics, and money being the classic three - mortality is surely a top candidate. We are all going to die, but we barely want to think about it, talk about it, or prepare for it in any way. Only three in 10 people in the UK have prepared their wills, and probably fewer still have made any decisions about how they want to die. We think about our ideal weddings and potential baby names, but not about whether we want to issue Do Not Resuscitate orders when we're very ill, or about what happens to our organs and other remains after we die. We have opinions about what a good life might look like, but not what kind of death we want.

It's really not that surprising that we avoid thinking and talking about death. It's an unpleasant topic, as much as we try to sanitise and dress it up. Our pastoral platitudes about death being a "natural part of life" fails to do it justice: as Wittgenstein rightly noted, death is not so much an event in a life than the end and destruction of it. With all due respect to the Henry Scott Holland, whose poem is now so commonly recited at British funerals, death is not "nothing at all", but an outrage against our desires to live and flourish. We may not experience fear or anxiety over our mortality on a daily basis, but twenty years of psychological research does suggest that when people are confronted with the fact of their mortality, they lash out, becoming more xenophobic, racist, sexist, and otherwise reactionary. My own work has also shown some paradoxical effects, in which religious people become more devout and nonreligious people become more confidently atheistic if you ask them directly, but everyone becomes unconsciously more religious in the face of death. Indeed, some psychologists believe that the fear of death, often latent but always quietly active behind the scenes, is a crucial motivating force behind much of human culture, including religion.

Why then should we bring to the fore this "worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight", as Williams James called it? If thinking about death leads to the kind of sectarian defensiveness that psychologists have found, isn't our current strategy of avoidance and sublimation the best one? I'm not convinced. After all, it's not as though we can avoid dying, as hard as transhumanists and their ilk are trying. The fear of death is, I think, like any other kind of fear, whether of spiders or heights or flutes (yes, flutes). Exposure therapy or systematic desensitisation is one effective strategy for conquering our fears and, perhaps, these negative social and psychological consequences of being confronted with death.

Fortunately, there is good work beginning already. Death Cafés are springing up all over the UK and, indeed, all over the world. (I'm organising a regular one at Brew Café, Oxford.) There is a great WNYC podcast on Death, Sex, and Money. There are determined activists like Bud Hammes, who has managed to convince 96% of the residents of La Crosse, Wisconsin to fill out advance directives to plan for their deaths. This is not just for the elderly either, but for anyone who just might die unexpectedly: that's everyone.

So, there. There are good practical, psychological, and social reasons to think and talk more about death and dying. And there are now good opportunities to be a part of on-going conversations about what a good death is, what bereavement feels like, why we should donate our organs, what eco-friendly funeral options are available, and all the rest of it. There's so much to talk about and, as we all know, the clock is ticking.