Death: no longer such a taboo?

Ever thought about planning your own funeral? Suzanne Bearne, who has arranged hers, asks: are we beginning to engage more openly and honestly with death?

Ever thought about planning your own funeral? Suzanne Bearne, who has arranged hers, asks: are we beginning to engage more openly and honestly with death?

It was a cold, bleak November day when I confronted death head on and planned my funeral. I found myself contemplating probing questions for the first time – would I like my body to be hygienically cleansed? Any thoughts on pallbearers? Would I like to wear makeup? I felt tinges of unbearable sadness as I made arrangements. My funeral planner pressed a tissue into my hand as I welled up.

But mostly, during the three hours spent fine-tuning the details, I felt elated. Here I was, a fortunately healthy woman happily facing my death and designing a personalised funeral that would celebrate my life; a day filled with warmth, raucous laughter and fun (and inebriated guests). It was a touching and uplifting experience.

That said, my mum was aghast when I mentioned how I’d spent my afternoon. But months later, she asked for the document to have it to hand, and it sparked conversations about her own funeral wishes.

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While not a topic regularly discussed over a Sunday roast with the family, more and new conversations on death are starting to emerge.

“We’re more in touch with how we’re feeling than any other generation,” says Louise Winter, funeral director at London-based funeral directors Poetic Endings. “We’ve become much better at dealing with difficult things when they come up.”

Poppy Mardall, founder of Poppy’s Funerals, another progressive funeral directors in a traditionally slow-moving industry, believes younger generations are approaching the subject of death in the same analytical and open way they treat sex and marriage.

“Like all taboos, the reality is that people generally do want to talk about it and get it out in the open – they’re just afraid of offending everyone else. The gradual questioning of things like funerals has, quite quickly, flicked a switch and now people want it out in the open.”

Like all taboos, the reality is that people generally do want to talk about it

Part of this sea change can also be attributed to the Death Cafe, a movement which launched in the UK in 2011, encouraging strangers to gather to talk about dying and death while sipping tea and eating cake. Winter, who helped plan my funeral, is also working hard to alter mindsets. Through an initiative named Life. Death. Whatever. she has partnered with end-of-life doula Anna Lyons to curate events that are designed to engage people, in an accessible way, with death and dying.

“By having difficult conversations and becoming more open to exploring our mortality, we can transform our lives,” says Winter. “It’s not just that we become more aware that our lives are finite, but that we can work out how we want to live.”

Suzanne Bearne planned her own funeral with London-based funeral directors Poetic Endings

While many of us view the idea as sad or terrifying, a research paper named Dying Is Unexpectedly Positive, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that terminally ill people and those on death row approached death more positively than we might imagine.

“Humans are incredibly adaptive – both physically and emotionally – and we go about our daily lives whether we’re dying or not,” says psychological scientist Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the paper’s authors.

Humans are incredibly adaptive, both physically and emotionally

“In our imagination, dying is lonely and meaningless, but the final blog posts of terminally ill patients and the last words of death row inmates are filled with love, social connection, and meaning.”

In the five years since she launched her funeral directors, Mardall has witnessed a significant shift in attitudes towards death. But, she notes, we should be realistic in our expectations.

“We’ll always want to discuss marriage and birth to a greater degree because they are more positive rites of passage. But someone who has been around a meaningful funeral knows how incredibly transformative and emotionally helpful it can be. It can’t and shouldn’t ‘fix’ the grief – but it’s a very good first step along the way.”

Let’s raise a cup of tea to that.

Featured image: Ornella Binni

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