Death still taboo for Brits

24 May 2011
Death remains a taboo subject in Britain, according to new research commissioned by the Dying Matters Coalition.

Although the majority of people think that talking about death is less of a taboo than it was 20 years ago, two-thirds of all people agree that people in Britain are uncomfortable discussing dying and death.

The research, which was released to coincide with the second annual Dying Matters Awareness Week (16-22 May 2011) finds few people have discussed with their partner the type of funeral they want (33%), whether they have a will (33%) where they would like to die (16%) or the type of care and support they would want at the end of their lives (18%). Women are a lot more likely than men to have had discussions with their parents, but both men and women are more likely to have spoken with their partner than their parents - just one in four people have spoken to their parents about whether they have made a will and only 11% have discussed with them where they would like to die.

  • The research, which was carried out for the Dying Matters Coalition by Comres, reveals that although most people are scared of dying, quality of life is viewed as more important than how long we live for:
    Just 15% of people would like to live forever and only 9% would like to live to over 100. The most common age at which people would like to die is aged 81-90 (27%). Younger people are more likely than older people to want to live forever.
  • More people are scared of dying in pain (83%) than of being told they are dying (67%), dying alone (62%) or dying in hospital (59%). Despite the economic downturn more people are scared of dying than of going bankrupt (41%) or losing their job (38%). Women say they are more scared of dying than men.
  • The older people get, the more likely they are to think that quality of life is more important than the age they live to, with 81% of people aged 65 or over saying this, compared with 58% of people aged 18-24.

The research also found the majority of people have used euphemisms as a way of avoiding using the words “death” and “dying” when talking about the death of someone they knew – the most common euphemisms are “passed away” (57%), “deceased” (23%) and “kicked the bucket” (20%). 17% had used the term “popped their clogs” and 10% used “brown bread”. One in five people don’t
think it’s appropriate to use euphemisms when talking about the death of someone they know.

Eve Richardson, Chief Executive of the National Council for Palliative Care and the Dying Matters Coalition, commented: “Although someone in Britain dies every minute, our research has found that many people do all they can to avoid talking about dying. It’s encouraging that most people think talking about death is less of a taboo now than previously, but there is still a long way to go.

"That’s why we are running Dying Matters Awareness Week, with many coalition members holding events up and down the country. Unless we talk openly about dying and death we won’t be able to get the care and support we want, where we want it at the end of our lives.”

The survey also found that more than three-quarters of people (78%) think that it is part of a health professional’s job to talk to them about where they would like to be cared for when dying and where they would like to die. 14% think this should happen when you are healthy and well, 52% when you are diagnosed with a life limiting illness and 12% when you are very ill and close to dying.

Professor Mayur Lakhani, GP and Chair of the Dying Matters Coalition, said: “As a practising GP I know that many people are frightened to talk about dying, but avoiding the subject is not in any of our interests. That’s why at Dying Matters we have been working with GPs to increase their confidence in talking with patients about end of life issues.

"The fact that our new research has found that most people would want a health professional to talk to them about end of life care is a positive step forward and shows that people do want more open and honest communication. We need to build on this and help more people have their wishes met.”

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