Breaking the silence on death and dying

Research has found 9 of 10 people never discuss their end-of-life wishes. iStock photo

Palliative care researchers at Flinders University hope to get more people talking about death and dying with Australia’s first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) to broach the social aspects of the topic.

Developed by the University’s Federal Government-funded project CareSearch, led by Associate Professor Jennifer Tieman, the Dying2Learn MOOC aims to stimulate social conversations among Australians and build greater community awareness about death, dying, and palliative care and get Australians thinking about what choices they might have that could affect how they die.

According to figures from the Groundswell Project, 9 out of 10 people never discuss their end-of-life wishes, 45 per cent of people die without having a will and, while 80 per cent express a wish to die at home, only 20 per cent actually do so.

‘If as a community we avoid talking about death, it makes it much harder for people when they are confronted with decisions about dying and palliative care,’ said Dr Christine Sanderson, a palliative care specialist and Flinders University researcher.

‘If people start to feel more comfortable with thinking and talking about death and dying, then there is a greater likelihood that they will make their end-of-life wishes known, and they might be more likely to have those wishes respected and followed,’ Dr Sanderson said.

‘We hope that participants in the MOOC will be stimulated to reflect on their own attitudes and those of other Australians, and might even consider how they will approach the 100 per cent normal experience of dying when their turn arrives.’

Course developer and Flinders University researcher Lauren Miller-Lewis said that at the conclusion of the course, organisers would collaborate with the Groundswell Project for National Dying to Know Day on August 8.

‘Being able to see what conversations take place in the MOOC will be useful in generating greater awareness about community thoughts on the national awareness day, as well as inform research into people’s attitudes towards death and dying,’ Dr Miller-Lewis said.

‘It will also help improve community connections and encourage people to work together. It’s hoped that by starting this conversation, we as a community can start to accept death as an inevitable part of life.’

Dr Miller-Lewis said this was the first time ‘everyday Australians’ together with academics, researchers and health professionals had the opportunity to explore the social and cultural aspects of death and dying in an online course.

Some of the topics in the free, five-week online course – which runs from June 27 to July 31 – will include:

  • Thinking about the language we use when talking about dying
  • Understanding changing approaches to funerals and memorialisation of the dead
  • Learning about how and what people die from
  • Discussing the implications of the “medicalisation” of death and dying
  • Finding out how art, music, and media have shaped our ideas on death
  • Discovering what happens in the ‘digital world’ when people die

For more details and to register interest, visit

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