Death Literacy Intros - let's talk about death without euphemisms. No, really. #NotKidding
Updated: Aug 27, 2019
This is the first in a series of posts about death literacy, how we can all work to improve death literacy in our communities, and what we might do in our own lives to be as death literate as possible. HINT: you have made an excellent start by reading my blog. Good work.
Death Literacy - a coin termed by researchers at Western Sydney University. "Death literacy is defined as a set of knowledge and skills that make it possible to gain access to understand and act upon end-of-life and death care options" (Noonan, et al 2016). Today's post will consider a small sample of contemporary TV and film shows, and how the writing and presentation of end of life/death/dying/advance planning, etc. reproduce euphemistic language around death (or not), and how this can actively discourage conversations about death and dying. I think that enjoying TV shows for light entertainment is great - or film. Or commercials. Let your death-positive mind critique all sorts of media content when you are watching or reading! In the end, critically considering a show's writing and content is a useful way to begin to unwrap how we can go about changing our own lives and language patterns to be more open, rather than less, to death literacy in general.
Dying, death, advance planning, funerals, final wishes, and all things relating to end of life - you might think that since death is a 10 out of 10 statistic we would all be more comfortable and sensible about having the important discussions and improving our overall death literacy as often as we can. However, due in large part to an overlap of funeral business interests in having an information monolpoly to protect their fiscal interest, and some very odd religious-based superstitions about death being tantamount to something evil and/or contagious, we are obviously still reluctant to have death conversations. But how, I hear you Gentle Reader ask, is the language being used, modelled, and replicated throughout both documentary and scripted shows relevant to death literacy? Excellent question.
The writing and framing of death and death literacy in much of our mainstream media not only fails to challenge our euphemistic approach of talking around death as opposed to talking about death directly, and is in fact actively reinforcing our cultural avoidance. Avoidance is not a desirable, healthy, or realistic position for societies like ours where the Baby Boomer generation is just now entering the Silver Tsunami (the big wave of end of life and death for the largest generation today). Death is coming home, there is no room, infrastructure, staffing, or funding for people to continue dying in hospitals and nursing homes. Death, annexed quite successfully by both the biomedical model and the after-death funeral corporate industries after the end of WWII, is returning to the domestic sphere and to families and communities; and we are not well-prepared for this reality either language-wise or at community/social levels. (These latter aspects will be considered in greater depth in further posts - for today I am concentrating on pop culture and language specifically to get our death conversation ball rolling.)
I have been noticing of late that although references end of life topics may be introduced and presented more regularly in media and films as we enter the Silver Tsunami years, there is still an aversion or squeamishness relating to even saying basic words like death, dying, funeral, etc. Some examples include Transmission Films' Tea with the Dames, or Grace and Frankie and The Casketeers, both of which are available in Australia on Netflix; in none of these high-profile productions (both scripted and documentary/slice-of-life) is death always framed as normal and a comfortable topic of consideration. Given the power of media to influence and inform our personal perspectives on language and what we may consider secret, shameful, not 'nice' or downright taboo, these shows represent far more than simple entertainment - they are the bellwethers of what we think about death and how we talk around death still - both to others, and to ourselves.
An aversion to death literacy is manifested in a number of implicit and explicit ways throughout the differing shows, and I think it is important to consciously consider how much influence on our own comportment and language around death and dying pop culture has, and why we realistically should already be immersed in a more death-positive society by now.
For example, in the first episode of Season 1 of The Casketeers, Francis Tipene - COO of Tipene Funerals - grimaces and steeles himself before saying the word 'dead' on camera. As a funeral director who deals with death on a daily basis, a level of discomfort in using basic terms does not serve to promote death literacy, but rather to keep people in revulsion and at a distance from the facts of what happens when someone dies, and afterwards. In fairness, by the sixth and final episode of the debut season, Francis does state "He died" in Maori, however there is a good deal of euphemistic language used by all the members of the funeral home throughout the series. The most common terms are 'lost' and 'passed away' (for me personally 'lost' is such a vague way of referring to the death of someone that I am often tempted to ask 'did you check the fridge?'). Obviously though, funeral homes and funeral directors have a vested interest in maintaining distancing language, as this will keep business healthy - people who have a distrust, disgust, or unease with a topic or reality will do everything they can to leave things to the professionals rather than become directly involved. Bear in mind that death literacy can help us save a good deal of money for funerals and after-death body care alike, so there are sound economic, as well as social, reasons for improving death literacy for all of us. Again, this particular topic will be examined closely in a later installment of this series.
As frustratingly vague and general as euphemistic language can be, I must also acknowledge that sometimes euphemism doesn't even make it to the table, making communication around death and end of life completely stymied. When prompted to talk about their funerals by the director of Tea with the Dames there is a considerable pause of quiet, then Dame Maggie Smith shifts the talk away to less 'depressing' topics. None of the women say anything to the question, and I was disappointed that four strong, feisty, take-no-sh*t, worldly, and outspoken women who are in a position to faciliate and foster death literacy were so resoundingly opposed to conversations about end of life, advance planning, and funerals. After all, Dame Judi Dench has no problem telling anyone who patronises her to "f**k off!!" (and reportedly needlepoints quite rude words beautifully, which I thrill to the knowledge of), so a considered and insightful response to a fairly general question about funerals and death should have been a simple one to answer for someone of this communication calibre, let alone her colleagues and good friends. I suppose I myself am particularly disappointed in the dames' lack of engagement as they have all led very long, full, rich lives. Travel, many social connections, and a diversity of experiences - both in character and in real life - means that they have each probably got a fair bit to offer in terms of perspectives, ideas, and observations about death and funerals, but alas, no. The rest of the film is quite interesting, but not a drop of death literacy on the horizon...
Yes, there may be an over-riding cultural element in play here of 'no death please, we're British!, but I am always interested in how any of us may act at any time as trailblazers and role-models. So as much as I do love the work and personalities of the dames here in question, I do think that four older women who have seen a good deal of both life and death are being unnecessarily reticent in skipping a genuinely interesting opportunity to reflect and offer some perspectives or ideas about death, funerals, advance planning, or final wishes. After all, if the estimated 80% of the senior/frail people who report to the hospital ER without planning had been galvanised or inspired to put some time and energy into conversations with the significant persons in their lives, we would have far fewer harrowing decisions to make without any idea of what our friends and family actually want.
This last statement about a quiet independent film acting as a galvaniser or catalyst for action may seem a bit of a reach, but we as individuals are often inspired by our idols, heroes, and favourite familiar faces on the screen to enact change in our lives - this is essentially why I began my death literacy series with media and pop culture. We are informed and influenced by what we see and hear around us from film, TV, advertising, news (hopefully the real stuff...), and books, so the dames themselves represent incredible influence for several generations of people - and you know my philosophy about it NEVER being too early to begin planning for your end of life.
Grace and Frankie is a show concerned with protagonists in their 70s - and quite apart from the relief of seeing fantastically talented actors who are not teenagers on the screen, there is a fair whack of content in this show that explores choice at the end of life, how not to break the news of someone's death (see season 4, episode 7 The Landline), sex and sensuality for the widowed, and much of this content is reasonably death-positive, and fairly universally sex-positive of which I am a huge fan. However, there is also resistance to death literacy (see season 2, episode 12 The Party for an excellent example of this aspect), so the show is well worth your time to watch, from a number of perspectives.
As there is so much here in this show about death and end of life I am not going to necessarily go into much detail about what works for me or not, but I will encourage you to watch some or all of the episodes of Grace and Frankie just to see what you respond to in terms of positive death-talk, and to see if there are useful tips for you to begin your own conversations about end of life. Also, flip your perspective around (always fun) - when a character resists talking about death/dying/advance planning, how do you feel? Are you secretly relieved? Do you agree? Are you irritated (I invariably am) and want a do-over? What works for you and what doesn't? Is there any content here that helps you see how you might initate conversations about advance planning or making funeral plans known? This last may be invaluable, and it is common western practice to pinch lines from a film or TV show when they are particularly effective and well-written. Think about how many times we hear well-worn lines from The Godfather trotted out to clinch an argument (gun or cannoli??), or the deli scene from When Harry Met Sally referenced, especially when there is a great idea on the table? There is no shame in nicking any line you feel effective for your advance planning - and if you hear someone's brilliant planning idea at a death literacy event you can always jump in with "I'll have what SHE'S having!". You're welcome.
I will leave you to viewing and thinking about what you view. For now. However, if you would like to learn more about death literacy you can always get in touch with me, I am an End of Life Consultant and Doula who specialises in supporting clients in communicating their needs, exploring their options, and supporting people as they discover what they really would like for their end of life. If you are interested in learning more about the origins of death literacy and how it works here in Australia, please see The Groundswell Project.