We are all going to die one day. It’s one of life’s only certainties. Yet it seems the vast majority of us don’t want to talk about it. This makes sense – it’s a frightening and overwhelming topic and thinking about it can leave you feeling anxious, scared and upset. It’s easier to ignore it and put it at the back of your mind.
However, in the past, death was embraced more in this country. The Victorians photographed themselves with dead relatives, while until very recently it was common for the body of a dead person to be laid on display in their front room for loved ones to visit and pay their last respects.
Now, it feels like death is hidden away. We Instagram ourselves living our best lives, looking young and vibrant sipping cocktails by the beach or glammed up on nights out. Death is the antithesis of this. It’s unglamorous. It’s not going to happen to us. In fact, scientists have recently discovered a way of reversing ageing in mammals and predict trials on humans within 10 years – could the next step be immortality? As somebody who often spends 2am lying in bed unable to sleep due to going into a spiral of thinking about no longer existing and panicking about it, I really hope so.
Due to other medical advancements and the growing ageing population, Millennials are less exposed to death than previous generations. Though this, of course, does not apply to everybody, many of us make it into our mid-20s without the death of anybody close. I’m 29, and (luckily) have never attended a funeral.
Everything we do, our obsession with healthy eating, whether it be eating clean or filling ourselves with whatever the latest superfood is, as well as our obsession with exercise, is all about prolonging life and putting off ageing as much as possible. While it may seem your friends are still partying hard, across the board young people are living healthier lives, drinking less than their parents did. Is there the overarching subtext here that we’re scared of dying?
Psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew says she’s noticed a recent increase in her millennial patients talking to her about feeling anxious, having panic attacks and being unable to sleep, and that during the conversations ‘death has definitely been coming up.’ ‘From the different young people I’ve met I think the state of the world at the moment is a big part of it,’ she says. ‘They seem aware of the increased threats and danger in the world [with the recent spate of terrorist attacks], feeling as if they could be hurt in any place, as well as various health anxieties like getting cancer or having a heart attack. This can happen because they know a relative or a close person who has died in that way, or from reading about it a lot in the media.
‘However, there’s an irony here – this is the generation living the most healthy, well-informed lives, much more aware of exercising and their eating habits than ever before, and yet we are also seeing an increase in anxiety and depression among people in this age group.’
‘I’m surprised to hear you think millennials aren’t talking openly about death,’ Louise Winter, 30, funeral celebrant and Editor of the Good Funeral Guide tells me. ‘In my experience of working with people during funerals, we deal with death a million times better than previous generations. The time of death is full of difficulty and strange emotions – grief is so complicated. Millennials have a better way of dealing with difficulty. They are the generation who do yoga, do apps for mindfulness, meditate and they are a lot more open about things. It’s the older generation, in my experience, who are more repressed.’
Winter has worked with Death Café, a worldwide organisation seeking to make more people think about the end of life and providing a safe space for people to talk about it over tea and cake. ‘In the death cafés I was running, it was predominantly under 30s who turned up,’ she says. She also ran a Death Café at Bestival a couple of years ago, finding it ‘incredible’ that so many young people were willing to take time out of partying to sit down and talk about their own mortality. ‘People do want to talk about death but they aren’t always given the opportunity or the safe space to say so,’ she adds. ‘The thing is, it’s a very difficult thing to talk about, not everyone has the outlet to do so.’
Having been nicknamed ‘the Mary Poppins of Death’, I wonder what Winter has gained from being so open about discussing it herself, as well as working in the industry. ‘A profound and transformational effect on life,’ she says. ‘I work with it [death] every day and it still puzzles me. But what I do understand is life. The more we deal with the fact that one day we aren’t going to be here the more we will realise we need to make the most of today. Millennials are really good at not doing jobs that they hate and wanting to do something that fulfils their purpose and I think looking at death is a great way of answering questions about life.’
‘If we can get away from death being so overwhelming that it paralyses us, which I’ve certainly seen happen, it can be used as a powerful force,’ Dr Andrew says. ‘We know at most we’ve only got so long in this world, but if you can use it as a motivational thought – “what can I do in that period of time? What do I want to achieve in life? What do I want to leave behind?” then it can be really helpful.’
From a practical level too, talking about, and preparing for, your own death is important. I’m talking life insurance and wills, both of which I admit I don’t currently have. Company Budget Insurance recently found that 53% of couples aged 18-24 don’t have life insurance, while 82% of these don’t understand what it is for.
They also found that 60% of 18-24-year-olds in couples haven’t discussed how they would cope in the event of their partner’s death, compared with 48% of 25-34-year-olds, and of these 36% of 18-24 year olds say they just don’t want to think about it (v 31% of those aged 25-34), while 46% of 18-24-year-olds in couples say they’re too young to think about it (v 22% of people aged 25-34). I’m engaged to my partner, and I’m firmly in the ‘don’t want to think about it camp’. Plus, I don’t earn a lot of money, and the only things I own of any value are my Macbook and a couple of pairs of designer earrings, which I don’t really think he would want. This lack of foresight, I realise now, is very bad.
‘There’s a website I’d recommend, called Fare Will,’ Winter tells me when I admit my failings. ‘They have made making a will not just about houses and huge amounts of money in bank accounts, but data and social media passwords and the diaries under your bed you’ve been writing in since the age of 15 and all those kinds of things.’ Many of us don’t own property and are still deep in our overdrafts, but these digital or paper footprints are things of worth most Millennials in this country do have and thinking about what private stuff you’ll leave behind is a good way of approaching making a will.
Winter admits social media may have played a part in helping millennials talk about death more openly too, especially Facebook, which is able to turn dead people’s accounts into memorial pages. ‘I remember working with a lady in her 50s who was complaining to me that her daughter and her friends were on Facebook mourning their friend who died, and she was appalled that they were doing it all in public,’ she says. ‘My response to her was that it was incredible that they were doing that, that they felt open and safe enough to have a space they could go to and grieve. That it wasn’t something that should be shut down, it was something that should be encouraged. People should grieve in ways that feel comfortable to them, and because they’ve [millennials] grown up online that’s how they can express themselves.’
‘I often think there’s a discrepancy between what people will say about what they think about death online and in real life,’ Dr Andrew admits. ‘I think using the right forums in the right place and having some support for talking about death, or anxiety about death or even loss and grief can be helpful, but I would always recommend face to face discussions. You have to feel connected to somebody when talking about your feelings around death.’
For those who are fearful of death, Dr Andrew says finding comfort in your beliefs (if you have them) can help. ‘Whether you believe in an afterlife or reincarnation, or even your energy living on, being able to discuss it and feeling clear about what your understanding is about life after death can be helpful. I’ve found people who have some kind of a strong sense of what could happen to them after they die to be more accepting.’
‘It doesn’t have to be this terrible conversation,’ Winter says. ‘There’s a lot of interesting stuff out there now, like various festivals and the Death Cafés where you can go and explore what happens after death without it being so horrifying. I think people want to have the conversations, it’s just making sure they have the right outlet and places to go to have it.’
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.