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The Death Positive Library

Anita Luby

Anita Luby, Culture, Libraries & Heritage Services Manager for Vision Redbridge Culture & Leisure, shares how the service became the first ‘Death Positive Library Service’ in the UK and the impact this has had locally.

Just over 18 months ago, Redbridge Library Service was 1 of 14 UK public library services to be awarded funding from phase 1 of the Engaging Libraries programme – a programme supporting public libraries across the UK and Ireland to move beyond health promotion towards more creative and imaginative public engagement projects on health and wellbeing.

Since then, the service has been busy using its role in the community as a safe & trusted space to engage residents in conversations around death, dying and planning for end of life through an innovative project called ‘The Final Party’ where it has been exploring a number of public engagement methods in order to establish itself as the first ‘Death Positive Library Service’ in the UK. The death positive movement is a social and philosophical movement that encourages people to speak openly about death, dying, and corpses. The movement seeks to eliminate the silence around death-related topics, decrease anxiety surrounding death, and encourages more diversity in end of life care options available to the public creating that safe place for discussions to take place. Redbridge Library Service has coined the phrase Death Positive Library Service to reflect its contribution to this growing movement.

So why is it important to talk about death?
It’s a well-known fact that we’re all going to die. The problem is, we just don’t talk about it, let alone plan for it! Death is still one of the biggest taboos in our society.

According to research undertaken by the Dying Matters coalition, a third of Britons think about death or dying at least once a week. Yet almost 80% of British adults find it difficult to talk about it. Many people experience some degree of fear and / or anxiety in relationship to death.  It is one of our most common fears and it also happens to be one of the least talked about. This reluctance to talk about death and dying means that we as a society are paying an enormous emotional and financial price by keeping silent. Where other societies educate their members about the reality of death and the processes of dying and grieving, In the West, we don’t – we are left to work it out for ourselves, relying on professionals to tell us what to do once we or a loved one is face to face with death.

Therefore creating space and time for the public to discuss end-of-life concerns such as quality of life versus quantity, dying with dignity, dying in the home or at the hospital, being cremated, buried or ‘other’ has been the primary aim of The Final Party. Having these discussions with loved ones whilst we have the mental capacity and time means that we are better equipped to meet death on our own terms and in doing so saves loved ones from having to make important decisions on our behalf at a time where they themselves may be struggling with feelings of grief and loss. Talking with loved ones and getting yours affairs into order helps relieve some of your own anxieties surrounding death and is the greatest last gift you can give them.

So why use libraries as places to start conversations about death and dying?
Libraries are safe and trusted places. They provide space and opportunities for people to explore ideas and to speak without fear of judgement and are the perfect places for normalised, open & enlightened discussions about death and dying to take place. Every gamut of society passes through our doors on a daily basis, each person having an opinion or an experience of death that they are often willing to disclose, if given a safe space to do that in.

How to get people talking about death
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to death, dying and bereavement and everyone’s experiences and needs are different. In addressing these needs, our imaginative, creative and ambitious programme has been based around collaboration and co-production with the local community, end of life specialists, artists, individuals, universities and public health teams. The project has been devised to remove fear and barriers to talking about death & dying while at the same time ensuring that the programme appeals to a wide audience from Redbridge’s diverse communities. Programme strands have included: death cafes, arts installations, performances, debates, talks, author events, workshops, a film commission, book displays, instagram forum and a day of the dead arts festival. In addition to offering a broad range of activities, we also have a well trained workforce and resources to compliment the programme. 

To date, over 4500 people of all ages and abilities (including those with additional learning needs) have been able to take part in the project to think and talk about death in a positive and non-threatening way, with many going on to create wills and advanced care directives. We are especially proud that the project has empowered adults with additional learning needs to articulate their end of life wishes.

It’s clear from the high turn-out at events and from our engagements with the community that there is a need for people to have access to good quality information and a safe space to start normal conversations about death. Our approach has been very gentle and accessible to the whole community – the act of doing a creative activity allows for interesting ideas and discussions to develop with participants realising that talking about death and dying can be life affirming and life enhancing.

This whole project has been an innovative and imaginative approach by Vision RCL, to tackle a challenging health and well-being issue through its Library & Cultural services and our learning allows us to both continue work on this theme, but use our audience engagement and learning to be bold and creative in responding to other challenging subjects and to continue to push the boundaries of our work, as well as establish a positive and credible reputation with partners for the future.

To keep up with developments on the project follow us online
Instagram: @redbridgefinalparty
Twitter: @ Redbridgelibs
Facebook: @redbridgelibraries
#engaginglibs #deathpositivelibrary

*Redbridge Libraries are managed by Vision Redbridge Culture & Leisure on behalf of Redbridge Council