We aren’t good at talking about death – and yet we desperately need to do just that.
As a society we aren’t good at talking about death, and as individuals we may try and avoid thinking about it. This is made easier for us by the fact that the process of death has been largely handed over to professionals, so we rarely witness it, and many of us can go through life without ever having seen the body of a person who has died. In many ways it is reasonable for us to try and keep our distance from death, for it is a deeply threatening reality:
- It is fundamentally uncontrollable and unpredictable;
- It involves (unknown and possibly extreme) degrees of physical pain and discomfort;
- It separates loved-ones;
- It is undergone alone;
- It interrupts our plans and projects, and may make life seem pointless;
- It seems to annihilate those who undergo it.
Yet we cannot deal with threat by avoiding it forever, and society is beginning to wake up to this fact: ‘bucket lists’ have entered the national vocabulary, death cafés are fairly commonplace, and organisations such as the National Council for Palliative Care, Compassion in Dying and the Dying Matters Coalition have brought the topic of death and the process of dying out of the shadows and into the public arena. It turns out that many people, especially older people, would value an opportunity to talk frankly about what is sometimes known as ‘the last taboo’.
Role of the churches
What role might the churches have here? The chair of the finance committee of the Archbishops’ Council remarked that the churches face a numberical decline because ‘we haven’t found a way to halt death’. Perhaps he was being ironic for, of course, the certainty of the resurrection is what gives us our identity as Christians, and the message that we proclaim and try to live out is one of life in the midst of death and hope in the midst of loss. For “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). We have something significant to say about all this.
But often it can be hard to communicate traditional Christian teaching on this vital topic in ways that make sense to twenty-first century folk, even if they are regular churchgoers. The central truth of our faith seems to be the one that is hardest to communicate. We need to learn how to have proper conversations about this.
Joanna Collicutt tells the personal story behind the Death and Life project.
Pondering these things
In 2003 my mother suffered a serious heart attack and at one point was given 48 hours to live. In the event she lived another seven years. She spent those years well, regularly visiting churches to pray privately and prepare herself spiritually for the end of her earthly life.
Whether by choice or not, she did this alone and unsupported. When I shared this with a senior church leader he reflected ‘It’s a great shame that the churches don’t do more to help people with this important task!’ The germ of an idea had been planted.
The gap in the church
Meanwhile, I had taken up the post of adviser for Spiritual Care for Older People for the Diocese of Oxford. I was reflecting on what ’spiritual care’ actually means, and how churches might go beyond tending to the physical and emotional wellbeing of older people (important though this is) and offer something distinctively Christian.
I had another significant conversation, this time with a young Jewish woman, who pointed out that, unlike many religious traditions, Christianity does not offer a model for how to grow old gracefully; Jesus of Nazareth ‘lived fast and died young.’ This conversation brought my attention back to something I had lost sight of: the Christian faith does not see later life as a dignified decline into oblivion, but the urgent run-up to its ultimate goal, stepping through the gateway of death to resurrection life.
Yet, outside of Easter services, there didn’t seem to be much talk of this sort of thing going on in church circles. Unlike baptism and marriage, there were hardly any courses laid on by churches to prepare folk for this ultimate life event.
So, I did some informal research to find out if people in my local area would like to do a death preparation course. I was astonished by the eagerness and enthusiasm of the response. In 2012 I delivered and evaluated a six week course called Living in the End Times. It was very successful and was written up for publication in an academic journal: Living in the end times.
But this was just one event – a kind of pilot. The next step was to spread the word and encourage others to try similar events. In 2014 a series of training days for ministers and other pastoral leaders was organised across the Diocese of Oxford (which covers Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Berkshire).
As a result of these, several more initiatives got off the ground; new things were learnt, different approaches emerged. It became clear that there was a need for more research into good practice, and the development of resources to support it.
In 2016 funding for a three year project was secured from the Henry Smith Charity This enabled the appointment of a dedicated research practitioner, Victoria Slater. It’s out of this more substantial project – gathering stories, recording good practice, identifying needs, doing theological reflection, that this web resource has been developed.
Our work on enabling people to talk about death and dying is based on some fundamental principles.
People should be met where they are
This means taking their beliefs and concerns seriously by listening attentively to them and expecting to learn something. It means bringing God’s story into conversation with their story rather than telling people all the answers.
Practice should be positive
Our practice in this area should be effective and not be harmful. We believe in reflecting on our work and developing evidence-based practice.
Reflecting on death is for everyone
People of all ages and states of health, not just those who are frail or terminally ill, should be encouraged to consider their mortality and engage with Christian teaching on the resurrection. We see this as an issue of discipleship.
We need to receive the wisdom of ‘the last days’
The final phases of life for both old and young can be places of potential learning, growth, and prophetic vision from which others can learn. This means gathering stories, documenting insights, and encouraging creative expression – receiving wisdom, not just giving pastoral care.
The resources and good practice that we have created are rooted in evidence of their effectiveness.
Why do we need evidence?
We are used to the idea of ‘evidence-based’ practice in health care. If you go into hospital for an operation you rightly want to know the possible risks and benefits of the procedure based on research evidence. We are much less used to thinking about evidence in relation to spiritual care, but it is just as important.
It is simply unethical to waste our own and other people’s time and energy doing something that at best will make no difference to them and at worst might do them some harm. In the area of death and dying there is a small but real risk of doing harm – of giving people false information, of opening up cans of worms that were better left shut, of taking insufficient care of our and their emotional vulnerabilities. Understanding these risks should not put us off this area of work; instead it should motivate us to ensure that we engage in best practice. And the basis for best practice is research evidence.
The resources on this website have come out of a process documented in our peer-reviewed journals: Working with Older People and Practical Theology. It is an example of ‘action research’. Action research is used in the human sciences, especially in the areas of health and social care. It is:
- Context-based, addressing real life problems;
- Aims at collaboration between participants and researchers;
- Sees diversity and complexity as enriching rather than messy;
- Generates new actions from its findings, which themselves lead to new research questions.
- After the first week of a course, there was a sense of euphoria for me, just from that sense of liberation you felt from people and having been the one to facilitate that.
- There was such an enthusiasm about attending that really made it worthwhile for me.
- Some people were virtually moved to tears by the fact that a course had been put on for them.
- It gave me insight into the sorts of things that trouble people on their own with no one to look out for their best interests.
- It made me realise that we need to go deeper, we need to build into our life of the church supporting people, more so than just when they’re bereaved or terminally ill.
- It’s made me realise that I’m on the same journey. It’s not just me leading a group of others, the same issues that I’m inviting others to engage with I engage with myself.
- It’s made me more sure of things I thought I believed anyway but I’ve walked in it a bit more and I’m not afraid of death.
- Having run an event, I think I’m more likely to be able to talk about death.
- The talk on how you would like to be remembered helped to anchor me as a real person and not a pale shadow. Thank you for affirming my identity as a person.
- It was helpful to discuss aspects of this sensitive subject openly, without embarrassment or reluctance, so often experienced in other situations.
- It brought to mind many of the things, both practical and spiritual, that we should have been thinking about, and had tended to put off.
- It was so good to talk about and share all of these things, mixing the practical, Bible notes, music, laughter and cake and tea.
- You have most lovingly and effectively removed my underlying fear of dying.
Death and Life was dreamed of and devised by Joanna Collicutt and Victoria Slater.
Joanna is Adviser for Spiritual Carer for Older People (SCOP) for the Anglican Diocese of Oxford. She combines this post with a lectureship at Ripon College Cuddesdon (a centre training people for ministry in the Church of England). She is also an associate priest in an Oxfordshire parish.
Her long-standing passion is the interface between psychology and Christian faith. She has been head of Psychological Services at the Nuffield Orthopaedic NHS Trust in Oxford and director of the MA programme in Psychology of Religion at Heythrop College, University of London.
In addition to many research papers and several book chapters, Joanna has written or co-written ten books. These include Ethical practice in brain injury rehabilitation (OUP, 2007) and Thinking of you: A resource for the spiritual care of people with dementia (BRF, 2017).
Victoria is a writer and practical theologian whose work includes research, consultancy, education and professional development. She was a healthcare chaplain for 25 years, specialising in end of life care.
The focus of all Victoria’s work is a concern for human flourishing. She has a particular interest in contemplative spirituality, spiritual care and health, and chaplaincy development.
Her writing includes Chaplaincy Ministry and the Mission of the Church (SCM, 2015) and Theological Reflection for Human Flourishing (SCM, 2012) with Helen Cameron, John Reader and Christopher Rowland. She has co-written a book with Joanna Collicutt, Lucy Moore and Martyn Payne called Seriously Messy: Making space for families to talk about death and life together.
Jeremy is the author of Heaven’s Morning Breaks (Kevin Mayhew, 2013), which looks at funeral ministry in the church. He’s team rector of the Anglican churches in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.
Rob is the rector of Radley, Sunningwell, and Kennington – a three parish benefice just outside Oxford.
Julie is a priest at St Paul’s, Wokingham. She’s especially interested in engaging people in the big questions of life and death through poetry, music and art.
Alison is the deputy director of mission (social responsibility) in the Diocese of Oxford and author of books on wellbeing, identity and sexuality.