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How has COVID-19 changed American attitudes about death?

It’s been over a year since the onset of the pandemic, yet we’re still struggling to overcome COVID-19. To date, the United States has lost more than 625,000 lives, and cases are now surging in all 50 states, prompting widespread uncertainty. 

For a year and a half, we have experienced a range of emotions, from feelings of hope to those of loss and despair. The year 2021 brought relief and happiness as we embraced our families and reopened our businesses, but COVID-19 remains top of mind as new variants gain traction. 

What’s more, we continue to receive daily reminders that death — our own and our loved ones — is a reality we face not on some distant horizon but potentially now. As we grapple with the loss of so many, we are compelled to confront our own mortality, perhaps sooner than we had once expected. 

This death awareness usually presents itself in two ways: death anxiety or death reflection

  • Death anxiety refers to negative attitudes about death, which can relate to anxiety and depression. In fact, recent studies have begun exploring the fear of death associated with this virus and how it’s triggering higher levels of anxiety in individuals.
  • Death reflection tends to focus on the positive aspects of dying — like finding meaning in life and death. 

As we struggle to make sense of the last year and the mental health implications of a global pandemic, we wanted to learn more about western attitudes toward death and end-of-life planning. 

Better Place Forests surveyed 1,138 Americans ranging in age from 25 to 75+, across the country, from a variety of demographics. We asked questions regarding end-of-life matters with the hopes of determining how the coronavirus pandemic has shifted their thinking and influenced their behaviors. 

We’ve published our findings here in “American Attitudes Toward Death in the Time of Coronavirus” to explore this topic and consider how we can use this new awareness to improve our lives, calm our fears, and take better care of those we love.

What we discovered about western attitudes toward death 

Our survey uncovered some interesting — in some cases surprising — findings. A few research highlights:

  • More than half of us (51%) are thinking more about our mortality because of COVID-19. And yet, most of us (~85%) still aren’t ready to start a conversation about it. 
  • 70% of respondents had not made solid end-of-life plans. Even among Boomers, who are older (55–74) and at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, 63% had not made solid end-of-life plans. 
  • Younger people have experienced the biggest shift in their attitudes and actions. More than 60% of Millennials said they’ve started talking about end-of-life matters with their families, yet 83% of them have yet to solidify their plans. 
  • Of those who have begun discussing death and end-of-life planning, 73% described the experience as positive and productive. 
  • Coronavirus may be accelerating the trend toward cremation, and respondents cited cost as the primary reason. Cremation is typically less expensive than a traditional funeral service, making it a more favorable option, particularly during times of economic instability. Researchers expect this shift in western attitudes toward death to continue in the future, with more Americans choosing cremation than ever before. 
  • As Americans are pushed to consider the alternatives, they say they’re more open to non-traditional options. In fact, 53% of respondents said they were more likely to explore eco-friendly possibilities like green burials or memorial forests. 60% of those familiar with memorial forests said they would prefer that option above all else. 

The importance of death awareness

Although we may not be accustomed to addressing our own morality, there is value in discussing death. In exploring this topic and having conversations about it, we acknowledge that we’re not invincible and that death is inevitable. Heightened death awareness can actually present us with life-affirming opportunities. This reflection can help give our lives context, and experts — and those surveyed — suggest that talking about and planning for the end of life can actually ease fear, anxiety, and grief.

Of those who have braved the conversation and started the process of planning a meaningful legacy for themselves and the people they love, 73% described the experience as “productive, reassuring, and positive.”

The reason: Awareness of death strengthens the desire to invest in forms of life and work that will outlive the self. Basically, the more mindful we are of our own death, the less fear and anxiety it induces, and the more we’re able to thoughtfully prepare the legacy we want to leave behind. In short, we can use the new awareness sparked by COVID-19 to improve our lives, calm our fears, and take better care of those we love. 

How death awareness can encourage end-of-life planning

While our survey reveals people are willing to have discussions around death — and are experiencing the positive results of doing so — there is still some hesitancy when discussing end-of-life planning. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed had not made solid end-of-life plans, which means they have yet to bridge the gap between death awareness and the legacy that they want to leave behind. 

With that said, even if they were yet to solidify their end-of-life plans, more than half of the respondents expressed interest in exploring eco-friendly alternatives. Realizing that there are non-traditional end-of-life options, such as conservation memorial forests and green burials, can offer a greater sense of peace when reflecting on life and death. Of the respondents who were familiar with alternatives to traditional burials, more than half (60%) said they would choose a memorial forest over all other options. 

We can either avoid thinking about death or address it head-on and make thoughtful arrangements. The more mindful we are about death, the more profound having the opportunity to make end-of-life decisions becomes. 

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