How has COVID-19 changed the way we think (and talk) about death in America?

Times have been anything but ordinary in 2020. We’ve endured nearly a year of collective existential fear and uncertainty. We’ve received daily reminders that death—our own and our loved ones’—is a reality we face not on some distant horizon but potentially now. And we’re getting these reminders not just in the form of alarming statistics (to date more than 240,000 American lives lost and a projected 330,000 by the end of the year). Alongside these abstract figures, we’ve confronted the prolonged challenge of trying to keep the virus from spreading in our communities — staying distant from those we love, masked among our neighbors, and cut off from the normal, comforting distractions of our lives. 

It’s a lot. If you’re feeling frayed and fatigued, you’re not alone.

How is all this affecting our attitudes towards death and planning for end of life? Better Place Forests asked 1,138 Americans ranging in age from 25 to 75+, across all regions, and from a variety of racial demographics how the coronavirus pandemic is shifting their thinking and influencing their behaviors. We’ve published our findings here in “American Attitudes Toward Death in the Time of Coronavirus” both to answer this question and perhaps the more important one: How might we use this new awareness to improve our lives, calm our fears, and take better care of those we love?

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. 
  • Coronavirus may be accelerating the trend towards cremation — primarily because of cost. And as Americans are pushed to consider the alternatives, they say they’re more open to non-traditional options, especially eco-friendly possibilities like green burials or memorial forests. 

In a year of harrowing headlines and collective anxiety there is still hope and, as is the case in any natural system, opportunities for new growth. 

Yes, the coronavirus and the dizzying economic, social, and emotional upheaval left in its wake have spun humanity into a state of collective grief. We’re reeling not only from the loss of life but also from the loss of normalcy in our lives. Facing uncertainty on so many fronts, it can feel like an especially frightening time to also be facing our own mortality. But a heightened awareness of death can actually present us with life-affirming opportunities. 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. 

Have you taken steps to prepare for the end of life?

Perhaps you’ve been thinking more about your own legacy in the time of coronavirus. Find out how ready you are to start having meaningful conversations with your loved ones and making solid plans for yourself.  

Download our report

You can also see what type of memorial planner you are. Take our Readiness Quiz to find out.

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