A fascinating social study from America has raised some deep
and troubling questions about the nature of modern society. A team of
psychologists at the University of Kansas has been studying the effects of
“throwaway” culture on personal relationships. What happens in a society when
people often move long distances for work or education? How does it affect the
way they relate to other people?
The psychologists discovered that the lines between people
and objects have become blurred. When people move long distances, they can
often think of their possessions – furniture, clothes, books, computers and so
on – as disposable. Why pack all those things and take them with you, when it’s
easier to replace them after you arrive in your new home? But people who take
that attitude to objects tend to take the same attitude to their friendships
and romantic relationships. Why take the trouble of maintaining the old ones
when you can replace them with new ones after you’ve moved?
But this attitude has psychological and even physical costs,
according to the study. Someone who sees relationships as easily disposable and
replaceable will not develop deep ties or achieve the intimacy and
understanding that can only come when people put time and effort into getting
to know each other. Social life becomes superficial, losing depth and meaning,
and this is not healthy for human beings. We are social animals and for many
thousands of years we lived surrounded by family and friends. We tend to stay
in the same place all our lives, putting down deep roots and establishing
All that has changed in the modern age, particularly in the
second half of the twentieth century and particularly in America. It’s a huge
country, stretching across an entire continent, and a young country too.
Immigrants had no deep roots there and after making one big journey to get
there they were less inclined to stay in a single place once they had arrived.
The extensive train network that was constructed in the nineteenth century
encouraged people to move more often and over longer distances. Then came cars
and planes. America is an ever more mobile society, but the people who are
moving still have age-old needs for attachment and permanence.
Because America is so influential on the rest of the world,
we can see these American trends at work in many other countries, including the
United Kingdom. British people too are moving more often and over longer
distances, leaving cities, towns and villages where their families might have lived
for hundreds or even thousands of years. More and more people treat both their
possessions and their relationships as disposable, even as they regret the loss
of depth and meaning in their lives.
How do these changes affect the funeral business? If people
are willing to separate themselves from the living, do they care less about the
dead? Perhaps not. The end of a life is always a time of reflection for those
left behind. What did this person mean to us while they were alive? Could we
have behaved better towards them, made them happier, had a better relationship
with them? There will be good memories and regrets. Often, too, there will be a
realization that we have lost sight of what life is for. Are we here to pursue
money and pleasure, to chase after ever shinier gadgets and take ever more exciting
holidays? Or have we been forgetting deeper and more important things?
When someone passes away, we can realize that relationships
aren’t disposable after all and that we should give more time and effort to
maintaining them. These feelings sometimes mean that people spend more on
funerals, trying to overcome feelings of guilt and regret by buying bigger
headstones and brighter flowers. There is nothing wrong with this: it’s a very
human reaction and funerals are meant to help us understand our grief and begin
our journey back to everyday life. But it would be good to think that the
funeral business could help to counter-act the shallowness and superficiality
of modern life. Death is not just a profound and permanent event: it’s a
powerful event too. It can and perhaps should make us stop and re-evaluate the
direction of our lives.