Scientists Want to Inspire Public Conversations About Death

A new installation at a London shopping mall aims to make conversations about our mortality more commonplace.
May 9, 2019, 2:30pm
Person holding paper in an art installation
Photo courtesy of AMS departure lounge

The bell tolls for thee. The reaper awaits. Valar morghulis.

Literature is full of poignant phrases to express the inevitability of death. But a new poll conducted by the UK Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) found that despite the ubiquity of such morbid proverbs, most people feel ill-informed about what actually happens at the end of life, and many would rather shy away from the topic altogether.

That’s why AMS is launching an art installation called The Departure Lounge. Tied together by the theme of travel—particularly the ultimate destination where we all end up—the exhibit displays personal letters about death, statistics about end-of-life issues, and interactive platforms designed to get visitors thinking and talking about this charged subject.


The exhibit will open to the public on Friday at Lewisham Shopping Centre in London, and 30 smaller versions of the project will be presented at locations around the UK.

According to a growing body of research, promoting this kind of “death awareness” has multiple benefits for patients and their loved ones. Reminders of our mortality motivate people to take better care of their physical health and can even increase prosocial feelings of compassion. Raising awareness about palliative care is also a major goal for medical organizations, because it's associated with longer lifespans, better quality of life, and higher satisfaction for family members of the patient.

To that point, the AMS poll revealed that there is still a lot of work to make people feel more comfortable about end-of-life discussions. About one third of the 966 British adults asked to take the poll declined to participate once they were told the questions would be about death, which may demonstrate how the topic remains taboo for many people. (The surveys were conducted in face-to-face interviews by the market research company Ipsos MORI, on behalf of AMS.)

Of the 612 people who did answer the questions, about two thirds said they know “just a little” about the process of dying. The most commonly cited source of information about death was friends and family, at 42 percent, while 33 percent of respondents said they had directly witnessed a person’s final moments.

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Only 22 percent credited medical professionals with educating them about death, and many respondents—16 percent—cited film and television as an influence on their knowledge about end-of-life issues.

"It is striking that six in 10 people feel they know very little or nothing about what happens to a person at the end of life,” said Sir Robert Lechler, president of the AMS, in a statement.

“Without doubt this shows we need to do more to give people access to reliable information about what happens at the end of life and encourage conversations about this important topic.”