Let's talk about death: how faith leaders are stepping up to help lead a critical culture shift

Did you know only a third of Americans have documented their wishes for the end of their lives? And only 19% of black adults over 64 have done so. Faith leaders, trained to spiritually support and counsel the dying and their loved ones, have a better vantage point than most on the stress, anxiety, guilt, not to mention financial challenges and pressure on both families and the medical system that this lack of preparation creates. We don't like to talk about death, but not doing so has numerous ramifications on our well-being as individuals, as families, and as a society.

It's hard to imagine anyone better positioned than faith communities, in partnership with the healthcare system, to help catalyze the culture change needed to transform this problem. Read this story from the Philadelphia Inquirer about Rev. Gloria White-Hammond, one of numerous pastors working in partnership with The Conversation Project to drive this culture change. Then learn more about The Conversation Project on our Opportunities Page and get involved in their work to transform the conversation about dying.

White-Hammond, a 67-year-old physician, activist and minister who also teaches at Harvard Divinity School, is accustomed to broaching difficult subjects. She often speaks out about having been  sexually abused by her father during childhood — an experience that motivated her to work with survivors of sexual violence in Sudan. Now, she’s using her unusual credentials as a pastor — and a pediatrician — to take on a new subject: death.

Mistrust of the medical establishment is one major reason black Americans are less likely to write down their end-of-life wishes and more reluctant to end life support, White-Hammond later said. That mistrust stems partly from historical racism, including segregated hospitals, forced sterilization of black women, and the infamous, government-led Tuskegee syphilis experiment that denied effective treatment to black men.

“We’re capitalizing on our credibility as an institution of faith” to drive conversations around end-of-life care, she said. The goal, she said, is to make these discussions “part of the culture.”