Humanists UK launches My Mortality, a collection of humanist reflections on death

In connection with Dying Matters Awareness Week, Humanists UK has launched My Mortality, a collection of 50 personal reflections on death and dying from a diverse range of humanists. Dying Matters Awareness Week (10-16 May) provides an opportunity to consider the way we approach and think about death and opens up conversations about dying and bereavement. The My Mortality project aims to provide an often overlooked non-religious perspective on questions around death, and to support non-religious people to think about their own mortality in a more positive and productive way. The shared reflections create an opportunity to explore humanist attitudes to fear, loss, and grief, as well as how they plan and prepare for the end, and their views on assisted dying.

Humanists believe this is the one life we have. They don’t believe in an afterlife. They believe we should therefore make the most of our lives in the here and now, seeking happiness and supporting others to do the same. Death’s finality can often give humanists a sense of meaning and purpose in the time they have available. Many will speak of how something of them does survive their deaths: the atoms that make up our bodies can go on to form new things; our genes can live on in our children and grandchildren; and our ideas, works, connections, and contributions to society can live on in the memories of others and in the impact we make on the world.

The project was the idea of Humanists UK school speaker and pastoral carer John Turner. Following conversations with family and friends, he realised the topic of death was one people rarely confronted. He therefore wanted to investigate how humanists viewed the prospect of the end of their own lives.

John Turner commented:

‘The different views presented here provide an important insight into a neglected aspect of what it means to be a humanist. I hope that all who read these contributions, irrespective of their beliefs, will find inspiration and comfort in the honest thoughts written here. I also hope that the “My Mortality” project will continue, and that more humanists will be inspired to contribute to this collective insight into what it means to be a humanist and, indeed, a human being.’

Director of Understanding Humanism Luke Donnellan commented:

‘Conversations about death can often be swept under the carpet or put off until it is too late. Positives can be drawn from considering our own mortality and what it means to us. It can help us to live better lives. I hope these reflections will support people to learn more about the different attitudes and approaches people have towards death and that they will open up opportunities for others to think about their own mortality and engage in conversation.’

A sample of humanist reflections from the My Mortality project:

‘My awareness that I have one life, that every waking moment is precious and gone in an instant, gives me focus. I pour as much time and effort as I can into the things that matter most to me: family, friendships, and relationships; writing, reading, and music; and supporting causes that make a positive difference in the world. I want to make my finite life as meaningful and as packed-full with pleasure and personal achievement as I can, because it’s all I have.’

Julian Webb

‘When I was in my early 50s my husband died very suddenly; he killed himself after leaving a note saying he couldn’t cope. Early in my bereavement I felt I had no future, but despite the grief and shock I knew also that I wanted to live my own life to the full. I made positive changes in my work (becoming freelance) and in my lifestyle (giving up smoking) to ensure I was in the best possible place to enjoy the life I had in front of me.’

Sylvia Summer

‘I wouldn’t want to live forever. The certainty of death is my friend. A friend who helps me lead a good life, helps me to laugh and cry, to love, to take a risk, motivates me to be brave and say yes to experiences whilst I can… It is painful to think of my loved ones in grief and I worry about the challenges they will face as they inherit this messy planet. I hope I will live through them as they inherit my behaviours and traits – hopefully the good ones! I am certain my legacy will be remembered through them, so I’m trying to make good memories and to tread lightly on this earth for the fleeting time I am lucky enough to be here.’

Karen Lewis

‘I have always known that death waits at the end of the road and sometimes nips up on you like a joker. Friend then, rather than foe. My nonchalance ended when my 92-year-old mother became very ill and entered a nursing home. She is lonely and confused. I am sometimes overwhelmed by sadness at what her life has become, and I fear it for myself. It is fear of dying rather than death – I know death is the end of consciousness and a welcome relief for an old body – but they are imaginatively connected. If dying means losing freedom and control, it sounds like being dead but alive enough to experience it, which is scary!’

Hester Brown

‘You might think I should be well aware of my mortality. But I am not yet living my life as if I know my days were limited. If I have any fears it is that I will die too late – after the ‘me’ that I know and care about is long gone. I am thinking now of the woman with dementia who could scream and cry for days on end. Death can be a friend that keeps away for too long. ‘

Mary Porter

‘I will not throw away my one chance by waiting for a mythical perfection to come. I will goad this procrastinating sloth to wring the most out of my time and when it is done I accept it will be the end. And as for legacy, I am amused to think that I will continue for a generation or two in the memories of others. The readers will sometimes ponder the author. One quarter of my genes will slowly be diluted further by my grandchildren and the molecules borrowed by my body will be shared throughout the world and beyond. Eventually even the universe will end. It is now that matters.’

Stuart Elton