Not so long ago, the vast majority of us did not contemplate death on a daily basis. But amid a deadly global pandemic, it can now feel like we discuss the topic as casually as we do the weather.
This sentiment is backed by a new study that found a third of Brits say their attitudes to death have changed as a direct result of COVID-19. The data, collected by Aura – a platform where people facing end of life can leave an online legacy for their loved ones – found that Gen Z is driving that shift.
Of the 2,000 people who took part in the survey (full disclosure: Aura was founded by my father, Paul Jameson, who suffers from Motor Neurone Disease), Gen Z respondents were four times more likely than Boomers to plan ahead and make a bucket list, despite having time on their side. They were also found to be three times more likely to talk to their friends about death, and over four times more likely to speak to their families.
The survey found that millennials are the most likely to have become more scared of dying since the beginning of the pandemic. This cohort is also the most likely to have made financial plans, and were found to be significantly more likely to talk to their kids about death than older parents.
“My vulnerable dad is supposed to be shielding, but he tried to go out for pints with his friends the other night. He acts like nothing’s happened,” said one exasperated 21-year-old respondent. “I decided to set up a family summit about our feelings around the pandemic and death. It wasn’t an easy conversation, but we all felt better for it – acknowledging that death is a real thing that does make me appreciate them more.”
Aura founder Paul Jameson says that a willingness to confront and discuss death could be one rare silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic: “Despite its inevitability, death has always been society's elephant in the room. Suppressing thoughts and feelings is damaging for individuals and loved ones, but it looks like COVID is starting to change this.”
Cariad Lloyd of The Griefcast – a podcast where comedians are interviewed about death and grief – also believes the pandemic is opening up conversations around death. “The body pile has got so high, you can’t ignore it,” she says. “It’s in your eye line, and whereas in the past you’d go out, see your friends or get pissed, we’ve had all the time in the world to go for a walk, let it sink in and consider our own vulnerabilities.”
Social media and other online communities seem to have facilitated much of Gen Z’s openness around the topic: the survey found they were four times more likely to attend death cafes – where death is discussed openly and honestly – or join a death-related online community than Boomers.
“I saw a friend was attending a death cafe on Facebook,” said one 22-year-old survey respondent. “It ignited something in me, as I’ve been extremely anxious about [death] my whole life, and it’s [a topic] I’ve always avoided whenever possible. I ended up going, and was told I probably had thanatophobia [the fear of death]. I didn’t even know my anxiety had its own word, and it was really enlightening talking about it openly.”
Louise Winter, author of the upcoming book We All Know How This Ends, believes the way young people are expressing their thoughts and feelings is the key to reducing anxiety around death.
“The topic doesn’t just belong to older people, and it’s brilliant how young people are embracing it,” she said. “They’re moving away from this stiff upper lip, ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude – it’s increasingly being looked at through the lens of mental health. Young people on Instagram are doing death in a way that makes you actually want to engage with the topics, talking about it through art rather than corpses and darkness.”
Young people also had a greater desire to resolve unfinished business with friends due to the threat of the pandemic, according to the study, which found that Gen Z are four times more likely to make amends with a friend they’ve fallen out with. While Cariad noted it’s great they’ve been taking this approach, she did come to the Boomers’ defence.
“It’s quite easy to be open, free and philosophical when you’re not facing your own mortality,” she said. “That’s one thing I've noticed about the younger generation: they're all ‘just talk about it, man, yeah just talk about it’, when they’re often not the ones looking down the barrel. When you’re encouraging Boomers to engage with death, it’s more likely to be around the corner.”
Other findings showed that while attitudes are changing, Britain has some way to go when it comes to accepting death for what it is: an inevitable part of life. As many as 36 percent were found to be more scared of dying than they were pre-pandemic, while 78 percent said they were practically and emotionally unprepared for the death of a loved one.
So what does the future hold for our relationship with death in a post-COVID world? How are we going to ensure that our views and attitudes progress, rather than regress? Mark Lemon, award-winning children's author and public speaker on grief, believes the government has a responsibility to educate young people about grief.
“It will become a mental health problem because of the pandemic,” he said. “The government needs to pull its fingers out and make sure it’s supporting children’s needs. Children need to be able to feel like they can express their emotions.”