Bereavement can begin before a person dies when the death is anticipated. This can be a particularly lonely experience as there may not be open conversation about the likelihood of death nor acknowledgement from those around that the grief journey will have begun. We hope to resource churches here in supporting those who are grieving before the person has died and also in opening up conversation to help prepare for death, so that when the person does die, the aftermath is easier to manage.
Below are a number of ideas for churches to help people begin conversations. We will add more information about preparing for death and pastoral care of those anticipating death, in due course.
In the meantime a very useful website is the ‘art of dying well’.
Death talk events
Whilst any time is good to hold events for talking about death, it’s worth considering holding them at times when there is more general public conversation, such as in November (‘the season of remembrance’) or during Dying Matters week or at Christmas or Easter.
- GraveTalk/Death cafes
GraveTalk is an initiative of the Church of England encouraging events to be run for people in the local area to gather, have light refreshments and talk openly about death.
The cards, whilst excellent for a café style event, could also equally be used with individuals where a death is anticipated. Beyond the cards all that is needed is a space to put out tables and chairs and serve drinks and snacks, plus the advertising of the event. The serving of refreshments is important as it makes the conversation feel normal. These usually become very chatty occasions, with a lot of laughter, but be prepared for a full range of reactions.
Death Cafes are a similar initiative: Have a look here.
What’s important about both of these is that they are not trying to get to a point, or a decision. They are both about creating a space for people to discuss a difficult topic – the only goal is talk.
It is advisable for anyone planning to hold a death café event to go to another as a participant first, as it helps get a sense of how they feel and the rough structure also for churches who want to become bereavement friendly to hold events like this on a regular basis. It helps bereavement conversations if people are comfortable talking about death in general. Perhaps start with a session just for the church leadership and take it from there.
2. Good Life Good Death Good Grief have some further excellent resources including a “dinner menu” which gives some structure to a conversation and could be adapted for local use. See other ideas here
3. For churches with a notable building or graveyard, a ‘behind the scenes’ tour or graveyard tour could be organised. You’ll need the help of a local historian – maybe you have one in the congregation – who can give a talk and then around that the minister or someone else can open up a wider conversation about death and grief, with questions such as ‘Why do we memorialise the dead?’ ‘Why do we want to leave something solid behind us?’ ‘Why do we want a permanent marker of someone we can visit?’
Churches could also run a photo competition or invite a local camera club, especially if parts of the church or graveyard are not normally open to the public. Gentle Dusk in Islington ran a very successful photo competition for young people with a public vote. You can see some of the winning photos on their website.
4. Alternatively, churches could organise a ‘Mythbusting‘ session. Invite a local solicitor who does probate work, a local funeral director, someone from the crematorium, someone from a local hospice or hospital palliative care team, a bereavement counsellor or death doula if you know one, plus the vicar/minister/priest. Each talks for 5-10 minutes about their work and common misconceptions about death, burial, wills etc, then you take questions. This needs moderating carefully or the solicitor may be peppered with very specific questions, and you may need to be primed with a few questions to get started, as people can be hesitant at first.
5. Churches in a multicultural area could do something similar with representatives from local faith or cultural groups to talk about their specific practices around the time before death, the handling of the body, funeral and bereavement rituals. This publication from Public Health England provides good background reading
6. There have been a number of good documentaries in the last few years about death and grief: the Island, Dead Good etc. A Love That Never Dies is specifically about grief and is a very powerful and moving document. There has been a lot of success of showing it followed by a Q&A with relevant speakers. The Good Grief Project have also recently made a shorter film about grief which may be easier to incorporate into an event.
7. A Memorialisation booklet can be downloaded here and has some good advice on creating space for people to express grief and remember the dead that doesn’t feel like another church service.
8. A trend over the last few years has been single Dying Matters events grouping together to make festivals. These now happen in a lot of places across the country: Bristol, Leeds, York, Birmingham, Reading, Redbridge and more.
9. Churches really getting into this topic should take a look at the Compassionate Communities model as there may already be something happening locally. This isn’t a church initiative but it would be really good to see churches engage with the project and help it succeed. It’s worth looking to see what happened locally last time and offer to get involved next time. Check it out here.
When you have decided to put on a death conversation event, you need to think about how you are going to publicise it, because you will need to go far and wide. And you will need to think about repeat events as this kind of event will take a while to gain acceptance.
But don’t give up. Remember, just advertising an event that is explicitly about death, dying or bereavement sends a message in itself. It says something positive about the organisation hosting it and its attitude to death.