This article discusses the subject of familial communication and the effects that a breakdown or total lack of talk can have when dealing with death and loss.
Although death is featured on the front pages of daily newspapers, Western society today has become death phobic. Talking about death is mostly taboo, and we actively avoid people who have been recently bereaved.
A century ago, life was more precarious and we all came across death many times in our lifetime. In 1910 most people died in their own beds at home, while a hundred years later, in 2010, 58% of all deaths in England took place in hospital and only 19% in their own home. 
While just over half a million people die every year in England, about one every minute, many adults may have never experienced someone close to them dying, and few have ever seen a dead body. Children are frequently kept away from funerals even when it is someone close to them and when they specifically request to be there.
While all life naturally seeks to avoid death, this is not the same as fearing it. If a branch falls from a tree, we step away. But we have an additional fear of what will happen after we die. Since fear of death is not the experience of every culture, it must be something that is somehow taught. In part this can be explained by a our cultural story of there being a judgmental God. 
But why over the last century have we become so phobic about death?
Over the next few years I believe we have a unique window of opportunity to face and heal this trauma. This is because of the 100 year anniversary of the Great War, later named World War One. There are a number of reasons why the seeds of our death phobia were sown at this time, and were compounded by other factors in later years.
Firstly was the trauma of the war itself. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million. There were over 16 million deaths (which includes about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians) and 20 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.
About two-thirds of military deaths in World War I were in battle, unlike the conflicts that took place in the 19th century when the majority of deaths were due to disease. Nevertheless, disease, including the Spanish flu and deaths while held as prisoners of war, still caused about one third of total military deaths for all belligerents in WW1. 
The horror of the war for those who survived was so great that afterwards they did not want to talk about it, and those back home did not want to hear it either. The curse of the famous British ‘stiff upper lip’.  At the time, most shell shock victims were treated harshly and with little sympathy as their symptoms were not understood and they were seen as a sign of weakness. So instead of receiving proper care, many victims endured more trauma with treatments such as solitary confinement or electric shock therapy. 
Although men were not compelled to fight until Conscription was instated in 1916, there was enormous social pressure on men to volunteer.  For example, at the start of the war in August 1914, Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather. The organization aimed to shame men into enlisting in the British Army by persuading women to present them with a white feather if they were not wearing a uniform.  By the end of the war, the slaughter of millions of idealistic young men appeared catastrophic and senseless.
This created some sense of guilt in many who had been so enthusiastic supporters of the war at its outset and so had their own reasons to participate in the conspiracy of silence.
The trauma of these deaths was compounded by the fact that no bodies were brought home for a funeral or to bury. In the early days of the war a handful of officers bodies were repatriated to the UK with the cost paid by relatives. However repatriation from a war zone was banned from mid-1915 mainly because of the logistical, health and morale problems the return of thousands of bodies would create. So all a family received was a telegram that began “Deeply regret to inform you…“. 
At the end of World War One, the 1918 flu pandemic (that lasted from January 1918 through to December 1920), infected 500 million people across the world, including remote Pacific islands and the Arctic. It killed 40 to 100 million of people—three to five percent of the world’s population.
To maintain morale, wartime censors minimized early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, Britain, France and the United States; but the newspapers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain, creating a false impression of Spain as especially hard hit—thus the pandemic’s nickname ‘Spanish flu’.  The virus predominantly killed previously healthy young adults and brought large scale death right into the heart of communities.
This has taken both birth and death out of the community and into institutions and the hands of professionals. This is compounded by the pervading view that considers death in hospital to somehow to be a failure.
The collective agreement of how to deal with large scale trauma and death at the end of the Great War, was not to talk about it. Tragically, far from being “the war to end all wars”, WW1 scarred western society whose sons were sent to die in another war within a generation.
This became parental patterning that taught the generation that lived through WW2 to not talk about it.
From my own experience I know almost nothing of how my mother lived under occupation in France and only a handful of wartime snippets from my father he told me in his dying months. Of my grandparents I know almost nothing, a gap in our family story that I hear echoed from so many people when I ask what they know about their grandparents in WW1. Not to know the story of your ancestors is to be cast adrift without a map.
So it seems that WW1 marks the point where we stopped telling the next generation about where they had come from. Losing respect for themselves, the next generation had no elders to look up to and learn from. Today we have replaced elders with celebrities chosen from amongst our peers without substance. This brings with it the fear of growing old and the loss of respect.
As Stephen Jenkinson  points out, we are a ‘competence addicted society’ so we fear this loss of abilities since it is only in our being able to do things that we derive our worth.
There is an important reason why we need to face our WW1 stories.
Studies with mice have found that the genetic imprint from traumatic experiences carries through at least two generations.  This means that the trauma of past wars is passed down.
This collective and individual unhealed trauma is a significant part of why we are unable to deal with death as a part of life in modern society. All these factors taken together have contributed to society focusing as little as possible on death as an integral part of life.
The preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO declares that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed”. 
The current 1914-1918 centenary of WW1 presents us with an opportunity to critically reflect on both the legacy of World War I and the continuation of war in our world.
By doing this, together with connecting with our own family stories, we can begin to heal the pain passed on to us from our ancestors and contribute to bringing about the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. 
Mike Grenville, Celebrant, home funeral supporter and transitionist.