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Death, where is thy sting? In silence. Let’s talk about it 

Death, where is thy sting? In silence. Let’s talk about it 

Wendy Appenteng Daniels  shares some insight into the latest, ongoing, Theos research project on death 25/07/2022

“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.”   

I remember how my professor used to quote this phrase from Epicurus, praising it for being wise and forward–looking before its time. I disagree: it’s uncandid, shrouded in arrogance disguised as wisdom and composure. One sentence cannot banish the ancestral human fear of death. Epicurus’ claim can only be valid if death and life are seen as diametrical opposites that have no bearing on each other. On the contrary, death and life do share the same space: when dealing with grief, in moments of pain and suffering, in bursts of courage, death and life coincide.    

So, “death does not concern us” is naïve at best, deceitful at worst. This has become all too clear in the past two years. In 2020 there were over 695,000 deaths in the United Kingdom: the most deaths in a single year since 1918. Death was the order of the day during the pandemic. And yet, it seems to me that despite the pervasiveness of death during COVID–19, the truth is that death is a side–lined conversation and we do not talk about it enough. It feels like rather than opening up serious conversations about what it means to be mortal, fleeting creatures, we’ve gone back to Epicurus. Death is generally felt as such a distressing topic that even the most subtle hint of it reminds us of Damocles’ sword hanging above our heads, ready to fall anytime, anywhere, steadily or swiftly.   

It is exactly against this backdrop that Theos is currently conducting research aimed at exploring public attitudes towards death, dying and the afterlife. The study will round off with a report which will enrich public conversations around death. COVID–19 has globally left a trail of death, making the topic of mortality more salient. How has this shaped our views about death? What is a “good” death? Is the prospect of death motivating greater spiritual curiosity? How can faith leaders better attend to the pastoral needs of the bereaved?  What exactly are the parameters for a “normal” conversation around death?    

These are some of the questions that are guiding our work, and the time is ripe to start a wide–reaching exploration of the British people’s attitudes towards death and the host of themes it brings along with it.  

Death is (seemingly) irrevocable, which literally means that it “cannot be called back”, so why not talk about it while we have the chance to?    

One of the focus groups interviewed for the Death project was a starting point to delve into these questions. The participants were members of a Death Café who regularly meet to talk about death, in a quest to defy death taboo and denial culture and instead promote “death positivity”. The participants expressed how political leaders had missed the opportunity to talk about death in a constructive way during the pandemic. Rather, death was reduced to statistical data, with a dismissive “Next slide, please” refrain.   

While I appreciated the confidence, matter–of–fact approach and free flow conversations, I realised that ultimately, the focus group were not just talking about death per se, but they were talking about life: simply from another standpoint. They were also bonding over the awareness that they were going against the grain of society, and despite the contrasting opinions and diversity of backgrounds, there was a willingness to listen to one another with graciousness.   

Dying, Death and the Afterlife can be seen as a neat chronological trio that slowly ushers us into vast themes that are normally not at the forefront of our daily discussions. Yet, the more members uncensored their thoughts around death, the more I realised that what they sought was empathy, community and an appreciation of life. At the end of the discussion, there was lightness and a form of unfamiliar peace. The fear of death might be reined in if we create more spaces to talk candidly about it, and if we start to think of death not only as the end of life.    

The Christian message uses the language of victory over death, like in the sarcastic tone of the verse “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”   

However, it is beyond difficult to accept death with our arms wide open, let alone, mock it. Although religion allays mortality anxiety with the promise of transcendence, death still hurts. But by talking about death, we can reclaim power over it because by so doing we trade fear for familiarity. Just as physical pain is eased when we make a sound, so is death more docile when we talk about it; because the sting of death can be found in silence.    

As long as our attitude is not a silent response, death can sting less, if only we bravely give a sound to it. The most fearful of times are worth talking about, and in the words of Bertolt Brecht, even worth singing about:   

“In the dark times  
Will there also be singing?   
Yes, there will also be singing.   
About the dark times.” 

 


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Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

Wendy Appenteng Daniels

Wendy Appenteng Daniels

Wendy joined Theos in May 2022 as the Research, Communications & Events Intern. She is interested in the relationship between culture and religion, education policy and the African diaspora. Wendy studied Religion, Politics & Society at King’s College London, including a semester abroad in Washington, DC. She holds an MSc in International Social and Public Policy from the LSE.

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Posted 25 July 2022

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