TAMING THE LAST TABOO
It’s called a Death Café. It’s not so much a place as an experience. People, typically strangers, gather together in the presence of food to launch unstructured and unconstrained discussions about mortality and its manifestations. There are no agendas, objectives, or themes, and no intention of leading people to conclusions, courses of actions, or products. Grief support or personal counseling are not permitted within this channel. During a two-hour period of time, discussions flow according to spontaneous interactions. A blank slate of opportunity enables participants to release any death-related thoughts or pose questions to which others may react.
The idea for these branded meetings was sparked in Europe. During 2004 the earliest versions of social gatherings for this purpose were inaugurated in Switzerland, quickly spreading to Belgium and France. In 2011 Jon Underwood began hosting such events in the United Kingdom, primarily in London. As a web designer, he laid an Internet foundation detailing principles, guidelines, and rules to be followed by anyone who would want to host such affairs under the official nomenclature and operational model of this non-profit “social franchise.” Thereafter, the concept migrated to North America, with the first session in Columbus, Ohio on July 19, 2012. It was hosted by Lizzy Miles, a hospice volunteer and social worker, and Maria Johnson, a grad school cohort with a shared interest in hospice and end-of-life issues; both are “twenty-somethings” in age.
While it might be presumed that participants would tend toward elderhood, it may be surprising to note that young people blend with older folks in these settings. Organizers are motivated to become hosts for different reasons. Some are practitioners who deal with issues of death, but others simply see the value of stimulating such conversations in their communities.
The impetus that inspired Carissa, a young host in Ohio, may be deduced from her comment that she had been given a second chance at life. She noted that, “While we discuss death, what we really are talking about, is life.” Excitement about hosting stemmed from her viewpoint that everyone who attends one of these meetings has a story or an experience to share about life and death.
Sometimes the facilitator tosses out a question to invigorate the discussion, but otherwise functions primarily as a peer participant. The role of this individual also includes assuming responsibility for locating a place to hold the event, publicizing it, and assuring availability of food… possibly cake and beverages. Any venue is apt to be suitable, as long as food can be consumed, and often purchased, on site. If restaurants are used, requests are made for participants to buy food in exchange for use of the space. Meetings may also be held in homes. A comfortable setting likely to induce casual conversation is the underlying objective.
A comfortable setting certainly was the case on March 9th, 2014 when an inaugural Death Café took place inside a stunning lodge on the grounds of the Prairie Creek Preserve.
Amidst rustic splendor in an expansive, high-ceiling space, an impressive conglomerate of young and old individuals representing varied stations in life joined the ever-enlarging circle of participants.
A young woman who aims to become a funeral director served as the host, provider of varied food selections, and apparent solicitor of friends who attended in support of the initiative. She was the first to speak, offering introductory guidelines, but promptly delegated the group to take over. From then on, there were no interactive lapses as such topical threads as these were woven into the fabric of thought-provoking material:
Our culture as it relates to mortality was one consideration. It was noted that death is sensationalized in movies and through other channels of image conveyance, perpetuating violence in society instead of suppressing it. Such erroneous manifestations in the media don’t mesh with what it’s really like when a person dies.
What is the perfect death? Someone expressed a hope for fading away without suffering, with an opportunity for “closure” prior to it. The image of a grandson kissing a woman was introduced.
Input from a nurse who had cared for dying individuals was based on a perception that an observer can tell when someone is ready to die.
The topic of voluntary euthanasia, or assisted suicide, emerged relative to questioning its justification as a way to preempt suffering, sustaining a sense of autonomy and dignity.
How do people react to someone whose life circumstances make the prospect of death far less formidable than usual, and possibly even welcome – a glaring diversion from conventional attitudes? Is it possible to think differently about this when one hears of a person who perpetually fears murder and is on guard because others in her circle have been killed? Can the average person who runs away from death understand why someone in this position would just as soon take her own life?
One individual expressed a hope to come back to earth in some form that’s productive for nature.
And so it progressed, moving from one realm to the next, with all commentary hinging on matters of death. Toward the end of this session the host tossed out a question that elicited further responses. A second Death Café that would be scheduled for the following month was announced. It is but one of a growing number of such meetings that are taking place worldwide.
A convivial group of mostly strangers left the premises with food for thought, many of them after taking a detour to the kitchen for some additional life-sustaining food for their bodies.
The metaphorical closet of demise denial – ordinarily pigeonholed into a dark corner by fearful avoidance – had been opened. Perhaps as folks left the building they had all the more reason to embrace life.
*List of upcoming Death Cafes in different parts of the United States as well as other countries: http://deathcafe.com/deathcafes/
*Guidelines for hosting a Death Cafe: http://deathcafe.com/how/
*Death Cafe on Facebook
Referenced quotation from: http://deathcafe.com/deathcafe/337/