We’ve been curious for a while about the use of the word “taboo” to describe the response to death. We still use it too at times, but we try to avoid it as much as possible.
Well there are a few reasons. Firstly, the idea of death being a taboo doesn’t reflect the experience we have had in the community. We have witnessed a great willingness to talk about death and to engage in death education especially when the context allows for normal everyday conversation – for example the Death Café movement. Even if someone isn’t ready to enter into a discussion right away, they acknowledge the importance and will have the chat ‘one day’.
Also using the word taboo disregards and fails to acknowledge that significant cultural and societal changes ARE currently in progress and EVERYWHERE! From new business ventures to new policies and grassroots action - people want to do death differently and they are!
Anyway… being curious types - we decided to run a little poll and crowdsource some of your thoughts about death being a taboo.
Firstly a big thanks to everyone who joined in – we were pretty blown away when 75 people responded in just 3 days. You can read all the responses HERE.
We kept it simple and asked 3 questions, here’s what people said:
Q1: We often hear the phrase “death is a taboo” but what does the word taboo mean to you?
Given the origins of the word taboo*, we wanted to hear your thoughts on it. The majority of people responded by saying that it means forbidden or socially sanctioned in some way. Here are some examples:
“unspoken, offensive, harmful”
“taboo is supposedly bad or secret”
“not to be spoken of”
Typically the responses reflected the idea that the word taboo means “a topic not to be spoken of in open society”.
Q2: The next question asked people to respond either yes, no, or I don’t know to the question “Do you think death is a taboo topic in Australia?”
34% said yes
26 said no
40% said they didn’t know – this includes 8 people who identified as being from overseas or unable to comment on death in Australia.
We then invited people to share why they had chosen this answer.
A big theme was fear, avoidance and anxiety:
“Culturally, unlike eastern cultures we tend to avoid the discussion. Personally I do talk about it and am willing to raise or engage in discussion when appropriate”.
“Many people feel uncomfortable. It puts them in touch with their own mortality and it is all so strange and foreign that nobody wants to talk about it. It's like sex was when I was young 65 years ago.”
“Talking about death acknowledges that people die & feelings/conversations that should have been shared weren't.”
“It's hard for me to really assess this because I work in a nursing home. If I think about it, families generally don't discuss death, because it is too painful, to face the inevitable, that the end is nigh. For myself, I couldn't face the death of my Mother at all, for she died a horrible death and up until the last moment, even though I am not religious, I was praying desperately for a miracle. There was no comfort in the fact that she was "at peace" and I honestly resented people saying that. I think it is taboo, because nobody knows what is next or is this it? Religion plays a big part in peoples acceptance and it in itself, along with politics, is one of the 3 topics that one does not discuss, because they always open a can of worms. Lastly I think that people want to live their busy lives and not think about death, because it's just too awful to think of their loved ones grief, how they will cope and survive. It feels wrong to talk about something that will happen, but nobody knows when. Most people would change the topic to something more cheerful. I am not convinced that talking more about death would have any benefits', except acceptance that we will all know the truth one day when we die or maybe not?”
Another group of people talked about the death being personal:
“I think death is an intensely personal subject in terms of personal experience & how it is dealt with on a personal level - in the same way sex is intensely personal. It is an intense experience & some (like myself) prefer to keep those emotions & thoughts within a close, trusted circle of friends. I don't think death is a taboo subject in Australia but I do think as a general cultural rule we tend to keep these things to ourselves &/or within the small group of loved ones we trust”
Another key point was the idea that talking about death is now an unpracticed social skill:
“I’ve worked in Palliative Care for a long time. Nobody really wants to talk about death or dying and the steps and processes involved. It’s a long slow process to get people comfortable enough to talk openly.”
“I guess yes, but from my perspective and in my circle it isn't. Not sure why anyone with an ounce of common sense doesn't get that death is inevitable. However as death is more and more removed from everyday lives (hospital care and often unnecessary end of life procedures so people are constantly fighting the inevitable) families and general population perspective seem to find death surprising and shocking. For me once someone turns 70 I honestly think it is more likely than not and expect it, but also have view of acknowledging the long life that person has had and all they have achieved. I often think I am in the minority.”
“I often hear people in my immediate family, community and beyond discussing issues of death and dying. I think phrases like 'death denying' and 'death as taboo' are rhetorical phrases and socially constructed by particular sectors of society to meet their own needs!”
Q3: Finally we invited responses to the question: Is calling death a taboo helpful? If yes or no please share your thoughts on why.
Only 2 people responded with a resounding “yes”.
“Yes if it focuses people’s attention and makes them think 'why is it taboo?'
“I think naming it such then allows the thinking and emotion behind that to be explored.”
The majority of people said that it was unhelpful for reason such as it reinforcing negative responses to death.
“No - it builds its own barrier.”
“Not helpful at all. It automatically categorises death into a particular perception. It is its triteness and banality that people fear (as well as all the usual suspects such as being a burden, loneliness, pain etc).”
“No because it potentially influences others to keep silent.”
“No taboo has a place and is useful. I think it creates too much of a binary opposite dialogue & there are so many shades of grey.”
It's not helpful because it reinforces this social norm.”
“No. Drop the language. Change the perception. Normalise it. For as long as we cloak it in the T word, there is a barrier/ excuse to people coming to healthy terms with it.”
“I think the word taboo makes the subject seem unreachable and a bit mystifying.”
There were also a handful of people who felt it was both helpful and unhelpful.
“Yes and no. Yes as subjects classified as taboo may yield conversations in the younger populations, but older populations may not want to address topics considered "taboo".”
“Whether it is helpful or not it is the only word that accurately describes the actual reality of what goes on in many countries and cultures globally and inhibits the discussions about death and dying. The question really is what are you doing/ do you do about the "taboo" as changing the word won't make a significant difference to behaviour and cultural norms.”
“Sometimes it is. I facilitate a Death Cafe and hear people say they don't like that name because it is very confrontational, to which I usually respond by saying that Death is very confrontational. Saying something is taboo can intrigue someone to want to know more about it, while it can scare others away. You have to approach each person individually.”
Taboo or something else?
For those who took our little poll it would seem that there is no clear consensus about whether death is actually a taboo. There was agreement however that it is unhelpful to call death a taboo.
My own discomfort with the term, comes from a wondering how it may serve the status quo. Does it undermine or discourage new social ventures, conversations and practices from developing? Or maybe the term itself spurs that kind of social change on?
Either way there is plenty of evidence that death practices are slowly being transformed and a return to traditional practices (such as home vigil and home funerals) is beginning to have a profound impact on how people are dying and caring for their dead.
I would argue we are now moving out of the era that promoted ‘death awareness’ and into an era signalling a significant change of practice. Death awareness is crucial, but alone it is not enough to create social change. We need skills, knowledge, empowerment and action.
Talking about Death as a taboo certainly does grab attention though.
You tell us….. Is death still taboo topic? Or maybe using the word 'Taboo' is the most useful way to talk about death at the moment?
Love to hear your thoughts.
* The word Taboo made its way into the English language thanks to British explorer James Cook in 1777. Following a visit to Tonga he observed several cultural practices that were ‘tapu’: “When anything is forbidden to be eaten, or made use of, they say, that it is taboo”. You can read more of the origin of the word here and here.