Last night, I left the cocoon of my den with working fireplace and drove into the frigid evening to attend a Death Café. The announcement of the meeting promised conversation about death—and cake.
Judging from the group’s small size, one might say that “trending” is a bit of an overstatement, although some attendees mentioned that this was not the first death café to be held in the Upper Valley. According to its website, deathcafe.com , the first death café was held in London in 2011 and since then, over 1600 death cafes (probably many more, as the founders appear to be non-proprietary about the use of the name and concept) have been offered. In a recent New York Times article, Death Be Not Caffeinated: Over Cup, Groups Face Taboo, the author traces a decade-old movement back to Switzerland and France—le café mortel, and reports that death cafes have sprung up in 40 American cities, some one-time affairs, others that meet regularly. There are the expected rules of confidentiality and respect. Undoubtedly, the best rule is the requirement of cake. As one organizer quoted in the Times says: “. . .the consumption of food is a life-sustaining process. Cake normalizes things.”
The mere presence of a death café seems evidence enough that death is on people’s minds, and more so as one ages. It may be our most universal experience. Birth could count, but we don’t remember it. Many people share the experience of having children, but not all. As a teacher of family law, I often tell my students that they are all experts in the “family” if not the” law” part of the course as everyone has some experience of family life, but that is not always true. Some uber-healthy people even escape the near-universal experience of serious illness. Death though, is an experience shared in two ways by all of us. Everyone, if they are old enough, has seen a loved one die. More so, death comes for all of us, and each of us lives our life knowing that to be true.
In the New York Times article, the author observes that “meetings tend to be more mundane than macabre, and more likely to produce small epiphanies than profound realizations.” I am still pondering my experience at the Death Café , but so far, it has produced small AND profound realizations. One is that death IS hard to talk about. We negotiate the difficulty and fear by juxtaposing the boldness of the word “death” with the whimsy of “café” as well as with the comfort of cake. Another is that we have stories to tell about death that often hide in silence, until given an opportunity where the telling of them is encouraged. And nomenclature plays its part in our ambivalence about death conversation. “Morbid” is a powerful word used by others to tell someone who wants to talk about death to shut up.
Perhaps the most profound realization was simply a renewed quest to identify and pursue matters of importance in my remaining years. Somewhere in the café conversation, people began to talk about end of life choices, the proverbial if you knew you were going to die next week, what would be most important to you? Spending time with loved ones, seeing India, finishing the blog post you are working on. . . It struck me, finally, that death, or at least the thinking about it, is a window into another’s, and my own, life choices and values. As I listened to my companions talk about what they most loved and most feared, I thought that I was really learning about who they were as living, not dying, people. Thus, the death café might be about death, but just as important, it’s about how to sift and set one’s very individual and personal agenda for life’s third act.
And the life-sustaining cake was welcome, and very good.