My interest was sparked by an excellent TED talk by Judy MacDonald Johnston on how to prepare for a good end of life. It gave me an entirely new, empowered perspective on my own death, moving me on from bland, hackneyed images of people wearing black and crying around a coffin, to what I could personally do to make my future experience of dying calmer, more comfortable, more controlled and, well, good.

A couple more death touchpoints swiftly followed. I heard about the Death Café movement and read something about how our cultural background affects our perceptions and behaviour around death; I realised that TED is full of interesting talks about different aspects of death; I started to notice little changes in the established conventions — like being asked not to wear black to funeral. This all suggested that, as well as being universal and inevitable, death was also worthy of a fresh look.

It’s also a topic that has relevance for research. It’s rare to receive a brief specifically about death, but it’s relevant to numerous fields, particularly the worlds of financial planning, health, and even social media. We spend our working days understanding how people’s lives are changing in myriad ways, so it makes sense to understand death too, as an intrinsic part of life. This edition of In Depth aims to explore death in the 21st century through three very different perspectives. In doing so, we hope to update and deepen your understanding of this rarely discussed subject.

The new semiotics of death
Alex Gordon, founder and CEO of Sign Salad, draws on his semiotics and cultural expertise to question how we perceive, plan for and codify death. And times are ‘a changing. Shuffling off this mortal coil is now more likely to involve a celebration of life, colourful hues, and digital memories than the sober trappings and ceremonies of yesteryear. Alex trawls through history to reveal just how far we have come in creating a new semiotics of death that will impact on our behaviour, lifestyle, and final resting place.

Cake, Coffee and Death
Ashley Gage and Megan Mooney tell us why Death Cafés are making such an impression globally. Research specialists at the University of Missouri, they have first-hand experience of getting such cafés — which host discussions on all aspects of mortality and life in an unpressurised environment — off the ground. The experience, say attendees, can be liberating and affect the consumer decision-making process in terms of compiling bucket lists, funeral planning and Advanced Directives, even though no overt selling is allowed. The one thing that such events must provide is... good cake!

Let's talk about death
Russell Whitworth, underwriting and claims director at Legal & General, knows just how ready the great British public are for death. The company has even conducted its own research; studying 5,000 adults to find out how prepared they are for unforeseen events like critical illness and death. The answer, sadly, is that the ‘deadline to the breadline’ for the average household in Britain would be just 26 days. So what can be done to make this situation better?