Death down under February 14, 2018

Many people today would agree that death has been ‘sanitised’, because for most of us living in the 21st Century and in Australian society, death occurs in a medical setting.  In earlier years, we were born, and died, at home.  Death was more communal, we were more engaged with the process of caring for the dying and death itself, we washed and prepared the body for burial and we were our own funeral directors. The body was generally kept in the home prior to burial where visiting family and friends could pay their respects, commune with others and spend time with the deceased.  Today, as one attendee said at a recent Death Cafe, “We don’t see the process, we’re just told about the death and then we go to the funeral”.

In contrast to this social shielding (or some may say denial) of death and the dead, Anthropologist and theologian Douglas Davies notes that “talking about death has never been more popular” (2007, 48).  This is an observation that both nationally and internationally does appear to bear some testament because there appears to be an increasing community awareness, and an intent, to reclaim our death and burial and to wrest it from the medicalised model in which “a good death” (De Jong and Clarke 2009, 61), where one has some modicum of choice and control in how, when and where one dies, is not always available.

What is taking place in the national and international community?  Publicised events devoted to raising death-awareness and to promoting death education populate social media platforms.  Death-dedicated websites, blogs and Facebook pages dot the online landscape of the world-wide web.  Workshops, seminars, conferences and MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Course) provide death education, information sharing and professional networking opportunities for those working in an end-of-life context, and hard and soft copy journal articles and books populate library and book store shelves. For all intents and purposes, it appears that many people, Australians included, want to either explore their mortality, perhaps regain a sense of ownership or control over it, or at the very least try to understand and find a sense of meaning in it.

While there is a plethora of international initiatives, in Australia national initiatives are slowly but steadily increasing.

In New South Wales for example, The Groundswell Project (, a not-for-profit organisation which utilises innovative arts and health programs to create social and cultural change about death and dying was established in 2010, while the Afterlife Explorers Conference  (, which endeavours to unite science and spirituality with the intention of increasing community and individual awareness of the survival of consciousness beyond the body, held its inaugural conference in Sydney in 2015 and has now become an annual event.

Another organisation, Dying with Dignity ( a not-for-profit which has branches in all Australian states,  actively advocates for the dying and seeks to change legislation to introduce medically assisted dying laws while in 2016, the CareSearch Palliative Care Knowledge Network offered for the first time their Dying2Learn MOOC, a 5-week online course designed to raise awareness and foster social discussion about death and dying in Australia   (  In 2015 Michael Barbato, Palliative Care physician, death educator and researcher offered the first of his ongoing Midwifing Death training courses (, while in 2016 the first annual event of the Festival of Death and Dying ( was held  in Sydney, followed by Melbourne in 2017  (with future plans to hold the event in Adelaide in 2018).

So, maybe the question isn’t “Are we a death-denying society?”, but rather, “Who has ownership of our death?”



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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