"Do you want to grab a coffee at Death Cafe?"
“Fancy grabbing a coffee at Death Cafe?”
It hardly sounds like an invitation that’s going to be putting Starbucks out of business anytime soon. But as The Guardian have pointed out, the Death Cafe concept appears to be multiplying, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron.
To explain, Death Cafes are “group directed discussions of death with no agenda, objectives or themes”, often held at coffee shops, and part of the Death Cafe ‘social franchise’, meaning that anyone can organise one as long as they stick to the brief. Since being launched by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid, over 682 have happened since September 2011, across Europe, North American and Australasia.
Of course, it’s often said that current UK culture is blatantly in denial about death. For a start we put heaps of money into trying desperately to appear young, longing to halt or at least cover-up the ageing process through any means we can. The elderly rarely live with their younger families, and instead are often “outsourced”. In fact, because of travel and migration, it may well be that one can effectively avoid seeing much of the reality of the ageing or dying processes that our older relatives will go through.
Now compare our experience to places in the world where death is up close and personal, and you realise how warped our lives are. A friend in Uganda recently spoke about someone he knew who died all of a sudden in the course of a weekend – the cause? A tooth infection. In fact compare our experiences to just seventy years ago, when medicine and technology were not what they are now and when the horrors of World Wars had horrificly left their mark. Death was simply unavoidable. And so it makes you realise how odd we are to try and give the avoidance tactic a shot now. As someone has said, for us “death is a dark symbol not to be stirred – not even touched – an obscenity to be avoided”.
Of course, we say we’re just being positive. We say, “well life’s to be lived”. And as we do so, we offer those grieving some psychobabble about “moving on” and gently encourage them to quicken the pace of their mourning and get back on it with life.
But perhaps really we’re scared. Maybe actually our avoidance is because we realise how helpless and hopeless we are. In the culture we’ve helped shape and been shaped by, where so much pressure is placed on people to achieve, to maximise one’s experiences, and to control one’s life, we just don’t really know what to do with death. Sometimes it comes along stealthily, slowly disfiguring our lives beyond all recognition – and certainly beyond all our ‘control’. Other times it pounces from nowhere, making a mockery of our plans, our ‘rights’, our hopes.
And so I feel it’s refreshing (and perhaps unsurprising) to see the emergence of the Death Cafe movement. In a culture of death-avoidance, it’s understandable to find people breaking out from the dissatisfaction of a status-quo that avoids any utterance of something we’re all going to have to face. As one organiser of DC Edinburgh put it, “there aren’t many places where talking about death is OK. We want to provide that environment, and help lead the discussion.”
But what of this discussion? What can we say about death? One DC participant made this striking comment:
“The conversation, the camaraderie and the intimacy have been a real blessing and have helped me move forward on my own journey towards accepting death and embracing it as an integral and necessary part of life. As Steve Jobs said, ‘Death is the destination we all share’. So don’t let’s run from it – let’s celebrate it!”
Now how do you feel about that? Accepting death is one thing, but celebrating it? What exactly are we rejoicing in? A life full of achievement and memories? Well, that may be the case for some. But in many cases it’s probably not. All too often it’s a life taken in tragic circumstances all too early. A life cut down in its prime by the invasive crippling of disease. A life of hopelessness ending without hope. A response of celebration there seems somewhat naive and numbed. Contrastingly there’s a verse in the Bible where death is described as an “enemy”. Isn’t that much closer to what we know to be true? Death is horrific. It steals and stings and scars. What’s there to celebrate?
Of course one of the reasons why death is taboo is because it forces us to face up to big questions. Questions bigger than ourselves. Is this it? Is there anything after death? And so avoiding death means we can simply kid ourselves into avoiding these questions. Interestingly in the Guardian article all the cited discussion appeared to be along the lines of what type of funeral or cremation provision would one want, or how would one care for their relatives, or how one has been inspired to live differently by the reality of their death. Now those are all subjects that are helpful to think about in advance of one’s death, but are they really the limits to any rediscovered death discussion we can manage?
Is that because we’ve given up asking the bigger questions? And are we really entirely satisfied with the answers we have?
In one of the earliest dated documents from the New Testament (around 55 AD), the apostle Paul wrote a letter to a church in Corinth (in fact the same letter I referenced above). In it he cites an early Christian creed, possibly from a few years after Jesus of Nazareth’s death:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles…
– 1 Corinthians 15:3-7
In essence this is a claim that a man died, but that he was then raised to life. The horror of death, unavoided, but then beaten. Of course, if that’s true, then that changes everything. And if that could possibly be true, then isn’t it worth thoroughly investigating? At the very least it must be part of our death conversation.
Here’s the first-part of an interesting film following a couple engaged in that conversation from a surprising situation: