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Death’s Generation Gap: How young and old have a very similar view on mortality

Dec. 6, 2018, 4:36 p.m.

You’d think older generations, such as the baby boomers (circa 1946 - 1964) would be the most comfortable when it comes to talking about death. But a recent study has shown that the latest generation, Generation Z (those born after 1995), have some very interesting and thought-provoking conversations about mortality…

Middle-aged people would rather talk about sex and money than death...specifically not their parents’ death. This is because they’re starting to realise their elderly relatives won’t be around forever and the time slowly creeps up on everyone - death reminds middle-aged people of their own mortality.

My family and I went to a relative’s funeral last year. Of course, we were all very upset as it was an emotional day. But after the service, my 18 year old sister. Grace, asked me if it was possible to have a non-religious funeral. The fact she was so open to have this conversation with me was an honour and, I believe, might represent her generation’s outlook overall. Generation Z aren’t afraid to ask questions. They aren’t afraid to learn.

Grace learned she would much rather focus on the memorial side of things when it comes to death. She believes it’s very important that a funeral or memorial service represents the person’s character. We come from a non-religious family, so this is quite important to all of us!

Grace said, “I like talking about subjects like this. When it comes to traditional funerals, I just find them a bit weird. I wouldn’t want loads of people crying over me while I’m squished in a coffin....but funerals to me are very important because they’re a good way of saying goodbye. One of my very close friends took his own life a few years ago. His mum wanted to hold a very traditional funeral which we thought “wow, he wouldn’t have liked that! It seems like she’s doing it to placate herself.” My friends and I thought this was fair enough, but we wanted to honour our friend because he was more than just a person with a mental illness. All the friends held a separate memorial service on another day. We just told stories and had fun remembering him...even though it was still very sad.”

This encouraged me to reach out and talk to other generation Z-ers. Julian Nowack, content manager at WeCompareCasinos said: “I've always been open on the topic. I think YouTube is a good source for people I know looking for advice, from how to deal with a death in the family to handling suicidal thoughts. I'm not suicidal, but understand the content and ability to reach out is much greater. This inevitably creates a much more vocal environment, where we can talk about sensitive situations that maybe people in the past avoided.

So, does technology help younger people access more information on death, dying and funerals?

“The ability to talk about death is probably enhanced by technology and sensitive material being a click away,” commented Julian, “while previous generations might not have been able to discuss or learn about areas such as suicide prevention methods or dealing with a death in the family, now we can watch a guidance video on YouTube, call up a special helpline or chat to family and friends on social media rather than feeling cut off from the world.”

“It might sound odd, but when I lost a family member, I spoke to my work colleagues. They are all around the same age and we went for a pint in the pub and I just opened up. It was hard, but it was nice to have people around me for support.”

“We are being desensitised to extreme content. Computer games are so graphic and real looking, it can almost be creepy at times. I don't feel much about death, but I know there are a huge amount of things I want to do before I die and I honestly think dealing with death helps to push you to take on challenges.”

The Millennials (people born circa 1981 to 1995) have a similar approach to death. Bisha K. Ali, one of the hosts on BBC4’s amazing millennial podcast GrownUpLand discussed why she isn’t afraid of death:

“I have very odd relationship with fear. I feel like I’m overly desensitized. I don’t fear death. I think you gonna die and then you’re just...dead. Like, I’m not gonna know, I’ll be dead bro!”

“In terms of mortality and the big fears people have, I’m so desensitized to a lot of those things. Apparently it’s a symptom of PTSD! [...]When I was a kid we went through major catastrophic events where we were around huge amounts of death. That then made me not as fearful of things.”

“My brother and I both have a slight disconnect. We escaped a huge fire that killed thousands of people. We ran through this valley and then there was a stampede and people behind us died from the stampede. And we all survived this event together as a family but that kind of [...] reset our ability to think of what’s ‘scary’ and ‘not scary.’”

Although this is an extreme example of why the younger generations are more ‘OK’ with death than scared of it, it explains why a lot of the younger generations are accepting the fact they, and everyone around them, will eventually die.

Austin Saturday, Marketing Apprentice at Click Mechanic, said, “The way our generation learns about death has changed. In the past, the recognition and acceptance of your own mortality was gently introduced by Disney and Warner Bros, with Bambi and the Iron Giant. This helped us bring up that chat with our parents, no birds and bees, just a quiet personal conversation. Now it's plastered on the trending section of Youtube as a clickbait thumbnail or a few clicks away on any /rekt thread. The calamity and anonymous discourse of the internet is never a place to seriously discuss mortality. Unfortunately, it's all too easy for someone to wish bloody murder through their keyboard or phone.”

This clearly shows that having a world of information at your fingertips and the ability to connect with people on a global scale can have its downsides. But, like everything, there’s an essence of balance - younger generations are far more likely to be be more open-minded about the world. As a result, they’re generally more open about death. So, what about the oldest generation?

I also spoke to Janet Morrison, Chief Executive of Independent Age, the older people’s charity. I think she sums it up very well: “Talking about death is important at any age. Our research found that people aged 65 and over are actually more comfortable talking about death than people aged 40-64, so it’s important for families to start breaking the taboo together.”

“This will help older people and their families feel prepared for the eventualities of life, and means they can enjoy their later years, rather than spending them having awkward conversations. We know that this can be difficult, so we’ve got lots of free advice and information about what you need to think about and how to start those difficult conversations. It’s time to take action, be brave and talk about death.”

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The above blog includes discussion around mental health and suicide. If you or anyone you know need support around these topics please visit www.mind.org.uk