Death Literacy July 15, 2016

Although ‘death literacy’ appears to be gaining ground, it seems to me that most people don’t really think about death all that much.

Do we all know we’ll die?  Does the idea of death, as a colleague of mine of posted in an online forum some time ago, lie in the back of our minds?  I think it does, but why?  Why is it there?  Why isn’t it in the front of our minds? Why is it that we often don’t engage with death or think about death until it touches us personally?  And why is it that generally, it is such an event that makes us notice death, makes us pay attention to it, not in a morbid way but in a way that enriches how we live our lives and shapes what we are living for?

Readers of this blog would be familiar with my childhood experiences, as they would my research, which explores after-death contact.  The literature terms these experiences “extraordinary” but for me they are ordinary and simply a part of life. When I was a child I first became aware of the fact that when people ‘died’ they didn’t really die because I could see them and interact with them.  But as I grew older, the vivacity of those and other non-ordinary experiences dimmed a little.  As I found my place in the world, responsibilities and duties gradually overshadowed the vividness and clarity of the world I experienced as a child.

On a far grander scale, perhaps humanity’s history is reflective of this, and perhaps in the growth of that history death, over time, has been forgotten, has fallen away from the front of the collective mind so to speak, so that now it sits in its recesses only to be seen or remembered when life, through certain events, calls us to remember.  It doesn’t seem to be a part of the psyche of the culture I live in, which is Western (a fact I have always found rather peculiar).  In contrast (for example), the ancient Egyptians quite literally lived to die.  The Egyptian Book of the Dead, or rather the English translation of “Yeret hur”, Coming Forth by Day (its correct name) reveals a sophisticated spiritual belief-system and world view which suggests that death was very much a part of the social fabric of life, (not just evidenced by the fact that the wealthy spent years building and decorating elaborate tombs well before their death).

To me this suggests a certain comfortability not only with death but with the afterlife – these people knew that they lived beyond death, they prepared for it.  Do we? I have a sense that death was once incorporated into life and understood, and that understanding had its rightful place in the culture and society; death was embraced in a manner quite ordinary.

Perhaps in humanity’s past people understood why they were alive much better than we do today.  I have found that often a death-related event turns a person inward.  They become contemplative, they ask meaningful questions and a psychospiritual shift appears to occur within them.  I have always felt that death was somehow intimately linked to the intrinsic spirituality of an individual.  In what state do we want to die?  In what state do I want to die?  How do we want to enter the spiritual universe?  How do I want to enter the spiritual universe?  What do we want to take with us?  What do I want to take with me?

Most people rarely think about death, and in fact to do so labels the individual “morbid”.  I have thought about death all my life.  I was socialised into it as a child and that socialisation has never stopped, if anything it has made me realise how imperative it is that we think about death as much as we think about life.  Elliott states it beautifully in writing, “Coming to terms with death is a lifetime’s work” as does Angela Tilby. “What is needed here is praeparatio mortis: preparation for death, a spiritual education in coming to terms with our mortality.  This is a task not for the last weeks of life – It is often too late by then …”.

Elliott, H. (2011). Moving beyond the medical model. Journal of holistic healthcare. Vol. 8, Issue 1, May.

Tilby, A. (2011). BBC Radio 4, Thought for the Day, 17 February.

Michele T Knight Written by:

Dr Michele Knight is a Social Worker, Social Scientist, researcher and independent scholar. Her interest and research in the end-of-life has its origin in the lived experiences of her own bereavements, her near-death and shared-death events, the returning deceased and attitudinal responses to those experiences. Since 2006, she has been extensively involved in community development, support and advocacy in both a professional and community services/voluntary capacity in the areas of bereavement and grief, hospital pastoral care, and academic lecturing/tutoring. Her PhD, Ways of Being: The alchemy of bereavement and communique, explores the lived experience of bereavement, grief, spirituality and unsought encounters with the returning deceased.

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