People of faith are marginally more likely to be comfortable discussing death in general and their own death in particular than those without a religion, and they are also rather more likely to have made end-of-life plans. However, the differences between the two groups are relatively slight and certainly less than many believers might have expected.
These are among the headline findings from a research report (and associated data tables) on Attitudes towards Death and Dying in the East of England which was released on 20 May by Ipsos MORI, who undertook the study on behalf of NHS East of England.
Fieldwork was conducted between 26 March and 20 July 2010 by means of a self-completion postal questionnaire sent to 2,500 randomly selected addresses in the East of England, of which 693 (28%) were returned by adults aged 16 and over after two reminders.
For comparative purposes, questionnaires were also mailed, on the same timescale, to 1,250 addresses in the rest of England, 332 (27%) of which responded.
In both instances, statistics were weighted by standard demographics to help rectify for non-response, especially to correct the disproportionate number of replies from women, older people and those not in employment.
Asked how comfortable they felt about talking about death generally, 76% of those affiliating to a faith or belief system said they felt comfortable. For atheists and those with no religion the figure was 69% (64% for those with no religion alone).
The gap narrowed somewhat in respect of conversing about respondents’ own deaths. 71% of those with a faith felt comfortable about discussing that scenario against 69% of atheists and those with no religion combined (or 65% for those with no religion alone).
38% of East of England residents said that they had discussed with somebody their spiritual or religious preferences for end-of-life. This was more than had communicated their wishes for dying with dignity (37%), preferred place of death (29%), privacy and peace (26%) and medical and nursing care (26%).
55% in the East of England stated that they had not discussed their spiritual or religious preferences, fewer than in the rest of England (66%).
Unsurprisingly, those in the East of England who were comfortable discussing their own death were more likely to have expressed their spiritual or religious preferences for end-of-life (47%) than those who were uncomfortable (21%). But the same was true for all other end-of-life wishes.
People in the East of England who said they did not subscribe to a religion were actually more likely to have discussed their spiritual or religious preferences (48%) compared to those who had a faith (36%).
On the other hand, religious individuals were slightly more advanced than the irreligious in making practical end-of-life arrangements (such as a will or specifying funeral requirements). Whereas 26% of those affiliating to a religion had made no such provision, the figure was 34% for atheists and those without a religion (or 28% for the latter alone).
In planning for end-of-life care, 10% in the East of England (and 13% in the rest of England) said they would seek information from a religious or spiritual advisor. This was a much lower proportion than would turn to family or friends (54%), a doctor (47%), a solicitor (20%), a nurse (17%) or even the internet (11%).
The proportion willing to look to a religious or spiritual advisor was little more (12%) even among the 78% of East of England residents who claimed to have a religion. So, religious professionals seem to be largely excluded from longer-term preparations for end-of-life. A mere 1% of atheists and those without a faith were willing to seek such advice.
The quantitative report from the survey, including most topline results for both the East of England and the remainder of the country, is available at:
The data tables for the East of England alone, with breaks by standard demographics and various death-related variables, can be found at: