Ashes to Ashes: Beliefs, Trends, and Practices in Dying, Death, and the Afterlife

Marianne Rozario and Lia Shimada’s report exploring current trends and attitudes towards dying, death, and the afterlife in the UK.

Practices around death and dying are changing rapidly. In particular, as the UK becomes less traditionally religious, there are growing preferences for cremation over burial and a rise of “celebrations of life” over traditional funerals. However, there still exists a wide range of religious and spiritual beliefs surrounding death and the afterlife. At the same time, in the aftermath of the COVID–19 pandemic, conversations about death are becoming more normalised – yet there is no corresponding increase in “death preparedness” (the extent to which individuals discuss or plan for the end of life). 

In light of this changing picture, Theos and the Susanna Wesley Foundation investigated current trends on, and attitudes towards, dying, death, and the afterlife in the UK, and explored the role of churches and faith communities. We asked: What are the current trends on, and attitudes towards, dying, death, and the afterlife in the UK? And what role do churches and faith communities play? Acknowledging current trends, we explored the question: to what extent do churches and faith communities care for pastorally, and accompany theologically, the dying and the bereaved?  

We found continued shared concerns around what makes a “good death”, including no pain/suffering, being surrounded by family/at home, peace/reconciliation, and preparedness, but a wide range of religious and spiritual beliefs desired in memorialisation practices and when contemplating the afterlife. Our study highlighted the importance of ritual frameworks for farewell; in particular, religious funerals offered by churches and faith communities can create space in which people can grapple with the nuanced emotional complexities of death. Furthermore, the idea of an afterlife comforted the dying and the bereaved by offering a spiritual framework for navigating life and death. 

While the religious landscape is changing, churches and faith communities have an important role to play in offering both pastoral care and theological accompaniment to the dying and the bereaved. There is a challenge and an opportunity for churches and faith communities to (re)claim their role – to re–weave religion and death. 

As Edward Stourton writes in the report’s foreword:  

As someone with a slow–moving but incurable cancer, I welcome the greater openness about death this report identifies. It is certainly true, as the report finds, that many people are turning to new and more secular ways of celebrating the memory of those they loved, but most religious traditions can call on the experience of centuries of responding to the reality of death, and they have much to offer in a debate of the kind Ashes to Ashes seeks to encourage.  

Edward Stourton
March 2023

Read the full report here.

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