Mortality awareness September 15, 2017

“… the promise of death and the experience of dying,
more than any other force in life, can move a human being to grow.”

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Death: The final stage of growth, 1975.

I came across the term “mortality awareness” (Taylor n.d.)[2] in an online article I read recently.  The author, Steve Taylor, with a depth of insight and sensitivity discusses death as “the great taboo” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, noting that this death-denying attitude renders potentially transformative aspects of mortality awareness less accessible.  In 2007, some years earlier perhaps than Taylor, Anthropologist and Theologian Douglas Davies wrote an article, Death special: The great taboo, which featured in the New Scientist October issue.  One paragraph in particular resonated with me:

Talking about death has never been more popular, and death is an increasingly common theme for film and television … There are thousands of websites dealing with the subject, many sorts of memorials, growing numbers of journals and courses on death studies, adverts encouraging us to write wills or plan our own funerals, and hundreds of support groups and self-help books. Ideas and theories of grief have become fashionable, and grief counsellors are available to help the bereaved. There is also growing interest in doctor-assisted suicide and euthanasia for terminally ill people who desire a managed end to their life.

10 years post Davies’ statement, I would have to say that death literacy is well and truly established.  Dedicated end-of-life conferences and events, organisations raising and promoting death awareness, the natural burial and eco-funeral movement, and the global Death Café social franchise offer a host of options, choices and self-education opportunities for even the most discerning ‘death devotee’.  Why then, do we still so often hear the familiar refrain that contemporary Western society is a death denying-society?

Are we?  I don’t think we are.  We know we die, we know those close to us die, we know people living all over the planet die; death and decay is everywhere.  And nor does Sociologist Allan Kellehear who argued that Western societies are not “death-denying” by any of the major criteria posed in the literature on the subject, furthermore, “to say that our contemporary societies are ‘death-denying’ has no theoretical or practical explanatory value.”  What is it then that the term death-denying is analogous too?

Kübler-Ross, E. (1975). Death: The final stage of growth. NY, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Taylor, S. (n.d.). Mortality and mindfulness: How intense encounters with death can generate spontaneous mindfulness.  Available online

Davies,D. (2007). Death special: The great taboo.  New Scientist, 10 October 2007.  Available online

Kellehear, A. (1984). Are we a ‘death-denying’ society?  A sociological review. Social Science Medicine, 18(9), 713-723.

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.

Comments are closed.