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Hoping For A Good Bye: Exploring Britain’s Transformed Relationship With Death

Hoping For A Good Bye: Exploring Britain’s Transformed Relationship With Death

Madeleine Pennington unpacks her latest report ‘Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK’. 28/11/2023

“How many of us have been present at the moment a person stopped breathing, as they died?” 

This was the provocative question at the start of this year’s Theos Annual Lecture, delivered by retired palliative care consultant and bestselling author Dr Kathryn Mannix. As Mannix observed, most of us would have sat at multiple deathbeds a century ago. Now, far fewer of us have ever seen somebody die; fewer still have had that experience more than once. Stunning advances in modern medicine have enabled us to live longer and healthier lives – but they also mean that, within the duration of a single lifetime in the UK, we have lost widespread familiarity with what “ordinary dying” looks like.  

The implications of this shift are unpacked in Theos’ latest report, Love, Grief and Hope, launched today. The report confirms that while the overwhelming majority of us have lost a loved one, far fewer have seen a dead body or been with someone as they died. Nor do we feel ready to die ourselves: across a range of criteria, less than half of us feel prepared for our own deaths. And we are increasingly likely to grieve behind closed doors too: perhaps most surprisingly of all, less than half of us (47%) now say we want a funeral. This is likely to reflect the rising popularity of direct cremation. Yet if funerals were one of the few places where death was openly and communally acknowledged in modern Britain, they too are now becoming less common. 

In short, we have become experts at excluding death from life – and this may have emotional and even spiritual consequences for us all.  

Most obviously, when we do find ourselves at a deathbed for the first time, we may find the experience more disturbing, or misinterpret the natural signs of a body shutting down – just as we may feel a lack of clarity when important conversations about end–of–life wishes haven’t happened, or emotionally unprepared for loss when it comes. But our death–denial has more insidious implications too: as we keep death out of sight, we become less aware of the forces shaping our assumptions and values around this fundamental human experience. Ours is a market–based culture in which those with less economic power have less influence and status, and this research finds that same culture shaping our attitudes to death. Not only did financial considerations impact whether people wanted a funeral or not. Unemployed respondents were also more likely than workers to feel depression at the prospect of their own death, less likely to feel prepared for dying (including feeling less “spiritually” prepared), and less likely to resonate with the idea of a funeral as a “celebration of life”. 

So if we don’t see it, talk about it, prepare for it, or mark it, how can we expect the forces shaping our understanding of death to be healthy ones, rather than insidiously reinforcing harmful ideas about whose lives count? 

At the same time, money isn’t everything – and here, our changing relationship with death collides forcefully with another socio–cultural shift: declining religious engagement. Religious and spiritual markers were in fact even more significant than economic circumstances in shaping funeral preferences. When asked why they didn’t want a funeral, far more respondents said “I think the money could be better spent another way” than said they simply “didn’t have the money saved” (67% vs 13%), and 76% of frequent worshippers said they wanted a funeral compared to 38% who never attend. At heart, it seems we have lost a shared conviction on the importance of ritual frameworks to say goodbye – and where shared values no longer hold, again, the market is ready to step in. In an age of declining religious affiliation, this alone has led to a significant realignment of British bereavement practices.  

These are not neutral trends. Research shows that funerals could play an important role in processing grief – and unprocessed grief can be a mental health timebomb. For all that the UK’s declining religiosity is well–documented, relatively little public conversation has been spent on the deeper existential implications of this shifting landscape. Yet when it comes to navigating our most painful losses, it seems that secularisation may leave a haunting footprint.  

This is not to say that religious groups have all the answers. On the contrary, many of those currently leading the public conversation around death and dying are secular voices – Kathryn Mannix among them – just as secular ‘celebrations of life’ account for an increasing share of the funeral industry. Yet the treasure in our religious traditions can be a continued gift to wider society, religious or not. To this end, the report closes by considering the continued role of the Church in a changing landscape of grief. It finds that those who frequently attend worship valued pastoral and emotional support more highly than their non–attending counterparts. It suggests that the more confident use of church buildings as informal, reflective spaces in which to remember the deceased will become more important than ever as increasing numbers of families go without a funeral to mark their loss. So too, the intersection of love, grief and hope in Christian theology itself holds space for the complex range of emotions we might feel in bereavement, from the agony and loneliness of separation, to celebration of life in all its glory. And the Christian view that every loss is deeply grieved – every life celebrated – whatever their economic circumstances is not just pastorally wise, but a powerful critique of a society that too often tells people that their lives don’t really matter.  

Britain has changed dramatically over the last 100 years. Our transformed relationship with death and declining religious affiliation are two of the most striking socio–cultural changes not only in our own recent past, but of any society throughout history. But one thing hasn’t changed: inevitably, still, we will all die. Facing that uncomfortable reality head–on brings us face to face with who we really are, as individuals and together; being more familiar with it might even help us live better in the meantime.

Read, Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK, here.


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Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine is Head of Research at Theos. She holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and previously worked as a research scholar at a retreat and education centre in Philadelphia. She is the author of ‘The Christian Quaker: George Keith and the Keithian Controversy’ (Brill: 2019), ‘Quakers, Christ and the Enlightenment’ (OUP, 2021), ‘The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting Communities and Serving People’ (Theos, 2020), and ‘Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief’ (British Academy, 2020). Outside of Theos, she sits on the Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations.

Watch, listen to or read more from Madeleine Pennington

Posted 28 November 2023

Death, Faith, Funeral, Grief, Love


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