When was the last time you talked about death and your own mortality with your friends? We are bombarded with information about health, beauty and youth every day but where is the place to acknowledge that we all have to die? Where do we make space and time to think about the finality of our lives and the lives of people we love? Death cafes offer this opportunity.
Morbid? Actually No! The first time I attended a Death Cafe was 3 years ago. The meeting took place at the Buttercup Cafe in Lewes (near Brighton). The funky bright colours of the decor were familiar. I was greeted at the door by the organiser. She explained a few things and then took me over to a table where I was welcomed warmly by the 2 people who sat there already. More and more people arrived, people of all ages. We were grouped around tables and if I remember right the age range at my table spread across 3 decades.
The organisers introduced the format of the evening and explained the idea behind death cafes. The main aim of the death cafe movement is to offer a space where anyone can come to discuss their thoughts, questions and feelings around death. They are not a support or bereavement group, neither are they a space where to give advice or counselling to others. Death Cafes are simply environments where mentioning death and the deceased or thoughts about personal mortality and means of dying are openly welcomed and not unsaid, sanitised or ignored. Yes, moving stories may be shared, but there is also an astonishing amount of humour, mischief and fun in the air.
The first part of the evening consisted of going round the table, introducing ourselves and saying something about why we had come. In the break we had time to order cake and refreshments and were also asked to think of a topic, a question or a thought about death and dying that we would like to discuss in the group; this may be a practical question or a more philosophical one, there are no rights and wrongs. We wrote our questions down and put them in a basket. Each person then pulled out a piece of paper and when it was their turn read out what it said. The group discussed the topic for as long as felt right.
I can’t tell you what interesting conversation the subject of death makes. We spoke about the kind of funeral we want, what needs to be done on a practical level when someone dies, how to talk to children about death and dying, how to speak to parents about it and much more. I felt stimulated, moved and inspired. For 2 hours I had a soulful encounter with some people I didn’t know, then we parted, continuing on the path of our own finite lives.
Each Death Cafe is different of course. The format changes and the conversation changes too, depending on who turns up.
The idea of the death cafe originated in Switzerland where the Sociologist Bernard Crettaz opened the Cafe Mortel. In the UK Funeral adviser Jon Underwood started the movement in 2011. Since then death cafes have sprung up across the world.
The Mexican festival of the dead is in October and Christians around the world celebrate All Saints Day in November, coinciding with the old pagan festival of Samhain. It is a time to remember the people who have passed away. What strikes me is that Western culture seems to have lost its rituals and gestures that acknowledge the dead and that help us to remember those who have lived before us. We don’t know how to keep them close anymore, so most of us live without a relationship to the dead in our lineage. I witness a sense of dislocation and alienation in many clients who, like all of us, live in a culture where we are meant to focus only on our own special lives. We no longer see ourselves embedded in a wider lineage. Stephen Jenkinson says: ‘our deep sense of homelessness is routed in our abandoning of the ancestors’
In my therapy practice I have started to support some clients in finding meaningful ways to remember those in their lives who have gone before. We don’t always have positive experiences or memories with some of the dead in our lineage, but this does not mean that we can’t still work on the relationship which is still alive in us.
Death is an essential part of Life. How do you relate to the dead in your lineage and who do you share your thoughts, beliefs and experiences of death with?