In the middle of Redbridge Central Library in Ilford, among all the bookshelves and displays, is a phrase that may surprise some visitors: “The death positive library.”
The sign sits above a collection curated to help people deal with death, dying and loss, including books by former England footballer Rio Ferdinand, the late American novelist Toni Morrison and anthropologist Sue Black.
The initiative, intended to encourage people to talk about death and dying, is not simply about book recommendations. Death Positive Libraries, a scheme that started in Redbridge in 2018, uses activities, art and literature to remove barriers to talking about the subject – including reading groups, author talks, film screenings, art installations and “death cafes” where people can meet for conversation.
Redbridge is one of three library services in the UK – the others being Newcastle and Kirklees – to have joined the initiative. And now, as the pandemic death toll continues to rise, it is set to be rolled out nationwide.
So far 58 libraries have expressed their interest to the charity Libraries Connected which is working with the three libraries and academics from the University of Northumbria on a framework to help all libraries become death positive.
Even though libraries have not been able to physically open throughout the whole of the pandemic, there has been huge demand for them, said Anita Luby, head of cultural services at Redbridge. More than 5,000 people have attended their digital events in the last year.
“In the current climate, we have been prompted to think more about loss: the loss of normality, loss of work or income, and the loss of loved ones,” she said in the Libraries Connected proposal. “It’s well understood that we’re all going to die but the problem is that we just don’t talk about it. We avoid planning for it and feel awkward around people who are grieving. In our society, death is an even bigger taboo than sex.”
Victoria Dilly, future funding project manager at Libraries Connected, said: “Libraries can be that safe trusted space in the community to have conversations that might not always be welcome in every area of society … Having a space where those conversations can happen with caring staff on hand to support is actually really powerful.”
Luby said 60% of participants said they felt more comfortable talking about death in a library.
Dr Stacey Pitsillides, vice-chancellor’s senior research fellow in the school of design at Northumbria University, has created online and physical works that encourage people to engage with the subject. She said literature, art and design offered “gentle entrance points into what is a vast, complex, difficult, challenging and traumatic topic at times.”
She added: “Particularly in a pandemic and particularly in this time when we all are quite traumatised by it, these gentle entrance ways are so important to get people to see it as a part of society. And the libraries can be part of that because they are a gentle and sensitive part of society, they’re something that sits within the community.”
Kirklees Libraries said their online death-positive events have attracted a global audience during the pandemic. Katie Hornby, a customer service manager, said that when they started the project, they “had no idea how relevant and important this work would become in the face of the pandemic”.
At Redbridge Central library cafe, accountant Kay Rawson, 57, said she had never heard of the concept of “death positive” before, but agrees that it should be talked about more and that libraries are a good place for it. “I think I’m naturally death positive. It shouldn’t always be a difficult subject to discuss.”