Taboo or not taboo?

Charles 6 Comments



Posted by Michael Jarvis, onetime Manager of the Natural Death Centre


For very many people in the UK ‘death’ is a subject left unmentioned. If you are reading this then you are part of a minority. A minority, furthermore, who would generally like to see more public openness regarding dying, death and funerals. We know the benefits: peace of mind from discussing one’s individual wishes, removing an unnecessary burden of decision-making from the bereaved, possible financial advantages from advance planning, and so on. 

Death seems to be a taboo subject for many, but does the general reticence to mention death, let alone discuss it, make it so?  We need to understand how it this has come to prominence. It wasn’t around in the time of our Victorian forebears despite their sensibilities in many areas (skirts on piano legs, for example). Rather, it was paraded with openness in art and literature and surrounded by a great deal of etiquette and ritual. Type ‘Jay’s of Regent St’ into a search engine to see details of a whole store devoted to mourning dress and accessories. So what happened in the last century to bring about such a seismic change? 

First, war and a pandemic. The First World War brought death on such a massive scale that repatriation was not feasible and Victorian and Edwardian notions of mourning were unsustainable. The scale of loss of life was immediately surpassed as a result of a global ‘flu pandemic and in the aftermath ‘death’ as a subject began to be swept under the carpet.  

Second, and there’s a degree of irony here, better living. In the 20’s and 30’s homes fit for heroes might have been a bit thin on the ground, but improvements in medicine and sanitation brought about a significant rise in life expectancy which had been less than 50 years for both men and women in 1900. Conversations which began “We should talk about what happens when I die” would increasingly be answered by “Don’t be silly, you’ve got years ahead of you!” 

Third, and perhaps most relevant, is the simple fact that death is now largely institutionalised. Death happened in Victorian homes; now the event is most likely to occur in a hospital, outside the home and away from friends and family. It is most likely too that they will not see the body which will be removed by undertakers. Undertakers themselves would prefer the use of the term ‘funeral directors’, another example of the dead being at a distance from the family.  

Taboo? Perhaps on reflection it’s not so much that death is a forbidden topic as that for many people death happens to others, elsewhere, and is dealt with by someone else. And here’s the rub, denying the existence of death is unhealthy. Unless we can change that mindset we run the risk of creating psychological problems and we lose control: control of that which we wish for ourselves, that which will ease the pain of bereavement and even lessen the likelihood of family disputes and squabbles.  

Put bluntly it is my view that we would all be the  better if more people felt able to have conversations about death and its various implications. Projects such as the Good Funeral Guide and the Natural Death Centre have done and are doing sterling work but there’s a lot that individuals could do. Think of all the clubs and societies in your area – from the W.I. to Rotary via Probus, Lions, Mothers’ Union and countless others, the one thing they have in common is that from time to time they struggle to find speakers. Offer your services. Challenge them to put death on the agenda.


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[…] Michael Jarvis’s piece earlier today, I’m beginning to wonder whether death-denial isn’t more prevalent among the elderly […]

11 years ago

If any readers fancy taking up Mike’s challenge and feel a little nervous of starting out in public speaking then the Natural Death Centre charity will consider doing a double act with you depending where in the UK you are (I am based in central London). Or come along to one of our events to see how we do it; there’s no right or wrong just different techniques. Join the Natural Death Society and see if there’s another local member for you to explore whether you could do it together. Chat to us this weekend as NDC is so… Read more »

Simon Smith
11 years ago

Last week Greg Wallace from Master Chef was on Who Do You Think You Are. When faced with sad events in his family’s past, for example the story of a child burning to death in 1890, a great grandmother dying in an asylum, he became very tearful and upset. He said that sadness just doesn’t enter his life – the worst that happens in his day is that someone burns a souffle. I was amazed – a life without sadness. Yes there is the annihilation, the existential crisis of death, but maybe the fear of sadness, and the experience of… Read more »

Georgina Pugh
11 years ago
Reply to  Simon Smith

I definitely feel there is a great deal of truth in this – that we are often afraid of our own emotional reactions to an event, rather than the event itself…. I guess most of the time we have plenty ways of distracting ourselves from our emotions…. not so easy during a funeral…. I led a funeral recently where the family requested the curtains be left open and all went and stood around the coffin before leaving, not wanting to let go and I have been wondering ever since whether this has something to do with having had so little… Read more »

Ru Callender
11 years ago
Reply to  Georgina Pugh

Georgina, we did a funeral last week in which the woman who had died was brought home the night before by her son in law on his pony and trap. The family sat around her open coffin all night. At the crematorium, her coffin was on trestles at the front, and instead of having the curtains come around at the end, her family placed her coffin on the catafalque. This was still a huge and unexpectedly powerful moment for them all, being the final action of a long twelve days. Letting go is never easy, but to be able to… Read more »

Jon Underwood
11 years ago

Really enjoyed this fantastic piece, thank you Michael.