Taking part in a Death café has almost become de rigeur. Yes, over coffee and cake they’re talkin’ dying in Ann Arbour, Tucson, Ohio and New York; in London, Oxford, Bristol and Bury St. Edmund. In Paris, in Ireland, New Zealand and Australia! Heck, even Canadians are doing it! In fact just recently the number of death cafés held reached the one hundred mark.
In one of our blogs entries in March Ritama, a member of The Sammasati Project team, wrote about her first Death Café, including the observation: “It was very relaxed and yes, we did drink tea/coffee and eat cake! There were probably 25 people present, of all ages and from all walks of life. It felt a little like the place where all the questions you ever wanted to ask but didn’t quite dare were actually ask-able — even the question came up ‘Why do we find it so hard to talk about death? — and that possibly someone would have an opinion or an answer.”
A participant in the first LA Death café, Nita Lelyvad noted: “Few people like to talk about dying. A grassroots movement is trying to change attitudes. It’s called the Death Cafe — and its central notions are that death deserves discourse and that learning to think and talk about it without anxiety can help people live their lives most fully…. The aim is to provide a comfortable setting so that people can talk about death without fear.”
While some of the get-togethers do choose a café, often they are hosted in a private home, as in Nita’s case. Hers was an eclectic bunch “which included a psychologist, a film director, and a Los Angeles police sergeant who talked about his encounters with sudden, violent death.
“The conversation spanned many subjects, including how people would choose to die if they could choose, the loss of beloved pets, the many different ways people grieve and the ways in which some other cultures better integrate contemplation of death into everyday life.”
Just when I was thinking it was high time I jumped on board, serendipitously a recently bereaved friend invited me to A Death Café, in Hampstead, London. At the Café Rouge in the High Street, it was hosted by psychotherapist and bereavement specialist Josefine Speyers (who is also founder of The Natural Death Centre) in London.
We were a smallish group, about ten women to one man. The hand-out informed us that ‘there are only two rules we ask everyone to agree to:
- Treat everyone with respect and allow for differences in opinion and experience.
- Everyone has a right to their own beliefs. Treat the personal stories people share confidentially.’
There were testimonials from previous Death Cafes that Josefine has facilitated, which included: “A liberating experience…” “I left the Death Café somewhat lighter and illuminated. The space to share experiences and views relating to death and dying was actually life affirming.”
Among us in our evening were two artists, a jeweller and a documentary-maker. In explaining why she was present, one participant explained: “I’ve just realised that death is not optional, so I said myself ‘Let’s be proactive about it.’” Someone else said “I want to be able to talk normally about death …for death to be ordinary.” Another reckoned that looking at the subject enhances living.
Such comments were music to my ears, so closely do they resonate with my own feelings. And I guess, by the end of the evening, I concluded that that was pretty much the benefit for me of being there – that I heard people voicing the need and interest to explore what death is, and that in turn endorses the significance and timeliness of The Sammasati Project.
There’s a form of ‘magical thinking’ which goes like this: ‘If I even talk about the fact that I am going to die, that will bring it closer.’ In my experience, and evidenced from the feedback I receive from workshop participants, that’s so not what happens; in fact the contrary is true. When we take the courage to acknowledge that death comes to us all, life comes closer! Or as Josefine put it: Talking about sex doesn’t make you pregnant!
Without a doubt it can only be a good thing that people are discussing death. At our meeting, in their concluding comments most of us spoke of leaving with a feeling of warmth and lightness. Good on you, Jon Underwood, for setting the movement in motion in London, UK, which has led the phenomenon to taking root in so many other cities.
And it might be that as a result of their experience with Death Cafes at least some attendees want to explore further. If a real interest is being seriously stimulated – and I reckon that is indeed what we’re witnessing – people will realise that we need to explore the subject beyond the conversational. That we need to move from thinking about death to feeling what death is, and to look at what that evokes in us.
They will be seeking an experiential enquiry into death… and that is exactly what one of The Sammasati Project’s workshops offers.