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Why Are Millennials and Gen Z So Obsessed With Death?

Rather than being the age-old taboo, it seems we're finally becoming more comfortable with the idea of our own demise. Probably because the planet is dying right along with us.

by Tom George
25 August 2019, 8:00am

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

I’ve often thought about that special day.

The suit I’d be wearing, the deep red roses that will be decorating the church walls and pews. Songs throughout the service will include a mixture of classic choir-led hymns with a few of my favourite songs thrown in. As my coffin enters the church, I think I want Stevie Nicks playing in the background. Her beautiful voice creating the perfect atmosphere.

While I have thought in meticulous detail about who might be there and what they will be wearing (long veils and embroidered handkerchiefs to wipe their specifically non-waterproof mascara with -- you can tell I used to watch Pretty Little Liars), for a lot of my friends, the thought of their own funeral had never even crossed their minds.

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In truth, at the age of 23, my own inevitable funeral has probably crossed my mind more so than my potential wedding day -- the latter considered much more normal to plan for, despite the fact that death is inevitable, where as assuming you will find someone who loves you enough to wed you is somewhat presumptuous. The idea of death is still one most people feel uncomfortable about.

As I looked into it, there seemed to be a limited amount of discussion or study on the macabre topic and so, like the good journalist I am, with a dedication to reliable research methods I made a poll on my Instagram story for my (highly Gen Z, left-leaning, mostly female or gay men) following to take part in.

Just under a quarter of respondents said they had also thought about their own funeral in detail, while 64 percent said that though the thought has crossed their minds, they had not entertained it. It was only 12 percent who said they had never once thought about their own funeral.

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This wasn’t surprising. Millennials and Gen Z are incredibly aware of the current state of the Earth and the precarious future that we face. As I type, the 16-year-old climate crisis activist, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, author and all around hero, Greta Thunberg is sailing across the Atlantic, in order to lesson the effects of flying, as she attends United Nations talks on the planet’s future. It was only a couple of months ago that US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez faced backlash for saying in an Instagram live that “there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?” While conservatives were quick to denounce her, bewilderingly comparing the comments to a no-child policy, even infanticide; AOC’s perspective is shared by many young people, with 38 per cent of 18-29 year olds saying climate change should be a factor when considering children.

We only have 11 years to prevent catastrophic levels of global warming, mass shootings are becoming a regular occurrence in the US, and a rise in extremist politics; no-one should be surprised that young people have a heightened sense of their own mortality and thoughts about their own funeral sometimes crossed their mind.

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However, cyber psychologist Dr Dawn Branley-Bell isn’t totally convinced. She doesn’t believe young people are exposed to death any more than previous generations were, however she recognises the potential impact and exposure that comes with the internet and social media. “Online behaviour and communication are generally reflective of topics (and behaviours) that would previously have just been shared with friends, family or other social groups,'' Dawn argues. “Exposure [to death] is not necessarily a problem, with the possible exception of any material that glorifies death (e.g. portraying it as tragically beautiful).”

In preparation for the screening of its third season, the widely popular though morally questionable Thirteen Reasons Why has elected to remove a bizarre scene which depicted Hannah's suicide in excruciating and easily emulated detail. The depiction was so emotive and vivid that it was quickly panned by many mental health experts as a dangerous ‘how-to’ guide. The removal was a step in the right direction, sure, but scroll through your Instagram feed and it won’t take long before you come across a comedically dark meme wishing for death and an escape from the perils of this world. Though absurdist humour, it’s easy not to consider the consequences of a like or retweet despite it then being viewable to all of our mutuals, regardless of each of their mental states.

However it’s not all negative, as Dawn notes, “some research into healthcare work and palliative care, suggests that being exposed to death can make individuals reflect upon the meaning of life and come to terms with mortality”. I asked my followers who said they had thought about their own funeral and a pattern emerged of people using their funeral service as a moment of empowerment – one last chance to take control of their own narrative even after their demise.

One person I spoke to said they would like everyone to take a shot off of their coffin. “I love Jaeger bombs and so for me, in my mind, that would be everyone’s last chance to take a final shot with me!” While perhaps the idea of getting so close to a corpse as to be able to take a shot off the coffin isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, the concept that the funeral should be authentic to the life led and the experiences she had with the people attending isn’t so scandalous. “For me, it is just important that my final moments on this Earth (albeit already dead) was a huge party and represented who I really am instead of people saying shit like ‘oh she was so kind and oh she was so beautiful, we’ve lost an angel etc’, because that isn’t me."