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The men who built their houses on bricks!

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 strong ties.

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.