Dying Matters

The Revd Dr Sandra Millar, Head of Projects & Developments, Archbishops' Council

The past few years has seen the beginning of a major cultural shift in our attitudes to talking about death. Nearly two thirds of over 50s say they’re happy to talk about their funeral wishes [Mintel 2014] and only a fifth say that they wouldn’t want to talk about the private matter of a funeral.

In the last few years there has been a growth in café style spaces for conversation to happen [e.g.Death Café], and documentaries, dramas and comedies that tackle death, dying and funerals head on. Just recently, a prime time comedy, ‘Car Share’ [BBC1] with Peter Kay, involved an extended conversation about planning funerals – a subject that wouldn’t have been raised a decade ago. But although the culture is shifting, and the taboo about funerals being challenged, the church can be strangely silent, whether in the pulpit or in the community.

Just over a year ago Lichfield diocese agreed to pilot a fresh approach. 60 people, lay and ordained, gathered one morning in Stafford to think about how to get people talking about death, dying and funerals. They went away to try out a new concept: GraveTalk, with 35 parishes setting up café-style events. Each event involves setting up a space to look like a café, where refreshments are served. People gather in small groups at tables. Conversations are started through a pack of 52 specially written questions covering a wide range of topics, ranging from attitudes to death to personal experiences.

There are no answers, just a space to talk. Facilitators, lay or ordained, make sure the event is running smoothly – and there is always ‘tea and cake’. The trial was researched in partnership with the University of Staffordshire, and the results were overwhelmingly positive: when we make the time and the space, people will talk.

One vicar who piloted GraveTalk said:

“I gave it to them and I went and made coffee while they started discussing it. And I just couldn’t shut them up. When I came to draw them to a conclusion, they wanted to carry on. They thought it was absolutely brilliant. I was really surprised.”

GraveTalk questions can be deceptively simple such as “what does a roadside shrine mean to you?” through to questions about dying, grief and heaven. Experience has shown that those outside the church are keen to get started – whereas clergy and lay leaders have been more cautious. Yet the research we have done is very clear: we have a unique opportunity to support the emerging conversation about death.

We have immense experience around funerals over many generations. Every week this year the Church of England will conduct around 3,200 funerals, putting us in touch with an estimated 200,000 people who attend a funeral each week. As church leaders and as friends and neighbours we know about being there for people during the long journey of bereavement, a journey that is unique for each person impacted by a death. The church is also used to holding the big questions about life and death that are often triggered by life events. We can be alongside people as they explore their thinking, wherever that thinking takes them.

But we haven’t always been good at being at the cutting edge of opportunity. Right now there is change in the air. Now is the moment when people are ready to talk about death, ready to plan ahead for a funeral, ready to think about both practical and emotional issues. Last week’s Dying Awareness week, organised by the Dying Matters Coalition (of which we are partner) gives the church an opportunity to speak boldly, preach from the pulpit, and open up a space for a conversation.