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

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

Madeleine Pennington and Nathan Mladin’s report examining emotional responses to death and dying in the UK. 27/11/2023

This report examines emotional responses to death and dying in the UK, presenting the findings of a nationally representative poll commissioned by Theos and conducted by YouGov.

It confirms that ours is a society which keeps death at arm’s length and out of sight. Many of us experience bereavement without direct exposure to death, and most do not feel well–prepared for our own deaths – though preparedness rises with age. We are increasingly likely to grieve for others behind closed doors too: religious or not, we think a funeral should celebrate the life of the deceased and hold space for mourning together, but less than half of us (47%) now say we want a funeral at all. Financial pressures play a part in these decisions, but religious and spiritual perspectives are even stronger determinants of whether people want a funeral or not. In this sense, reducing religious affiliation has made greater room for market forces to shape how we grieve. The result is a significant realignment in British grieving practices. And further changes to the ways we grieve may come, given higher levels of openness to emerging “grief technologies” among the young.

Despite all this change, one prevailing factor as we think about death is the importance of relationships: the nature of key relationships (for example whether we are married or have children) affects our immediate emotional responses to death and dying; many of our concerns about dying are about how it will impact those we love, or the future life events we will miss; and we lean on those closest to us as we die or mourn others.

In a modern and pluralistic society, the Church is rightly one of many voices in this conversation, but it is well–placed to make a positive and much–needed contribution – not only because of its practical assets and historical engagement in this area, but also because of its continued theological witness. Church buildings can be offered as accessible, informal, reflective spaces to remember the dead and seek out bereavement support. This is a distinctly modern opportunity to meet people in their grief, not least as increasing numbers go without funerals to mark their losses. The interplay of grief and hope in Christian theology also holds space for the many complex emotions people feel as they face dying and bereavement – and ultimately, gives theological voice to our intuition that grief is really about love.

Read the full report here.

View the data tables 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

Death, Faith, Funeral, Grief, Love


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