Woody Allen famously quipped, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.” Many of us share his negative view of death.
However, if we lived forever, our lives would lose form. Procreating immortals would crowd our planet. We might squander centuries on Candy Crush. The young could never escape the shadows of lingering ancestors and lurking elders. A life unbounded by death would lose its value and joy. Although Woody Allen would prefer to avoid dying, as a writer he probably understands that in each life story, the chapters on birth and death are the beginning and ending that intensify the plot in the middle.
Death marks our lives as surely as night marks our days. Although we speak openly of the beauty of sunsets, death is still a taboo subject in polite company. Fortunately, the twenty-first century has brought us the “Death Café,” a venue for people to discuss death over light refreshments “with a view to helping people make the most of their finite lives” (Death Café website).
Eating dessert normalizes conversations on death. Anthropologist and sociologist Bernard Crettaz understood this when he held the first “Café Mortel” or “Death Café” in Neuchatel, Switzerland in 2004. Crettaz’s concept was simple: gather people to eat cake, drink tea or coffee, and talk about mortality. Since 2004, thousands of people in 55 countries have met in over 5000 Death Café events.
I had the honour of baking for Stratford, Ontario’s first Death Café, held on a cold February evening earlier this year. While people shed their coats and boots at the door, I put on the kettle, arranged and rearranged chairs, and fussed over the brownies and maple cake. I was nervous that the conversation would be stilted and uncomfortable. I needn’t have worried.
Ten brave people attended. In overlapping categories, they included: octogenarians, middle aged people, and a millennial; Unitarians, atheists, and Buddhists; former evangelical Christians; equal numbers of men and women; and professionals, artists, and retirees. My co-organizer, a humanist celebrant and fellow Unitarian, opened the discussion and facilitated. The refreshments were typical funereal fare; the conversation was far more interesting.
For two hours, people engaged in intense, wide ranging exchanges on what it means to be mortal, the experience of losing people we love, and how death gives shape to our lives. Organizers and attendees agree to keep Death Café discussions confidential. At risk of breaking this vow, I share some compelling themes that emerged for me in very general terms.
First, as in the Buddhist parable of the mustard seed, everyone at the Death Café had lost someone he or she loved. It was comforting to recognize the universality of bereavement with other people.
On the other hand, the concept of an afterlife is not necessarily a soothing balm for the thanatophobic. The ex-evangelicals seemed relieved to talk about death without the looming, twin threats of a miserable hell and a tedious heaven. As we agreed in the Death Café, no one knows what happens to us after we die. Clergy who claim to know lose integrity among some people in their congregations and shut down spiritual exploration of death. Acknowledging death as an unknown promotes honest discussion and brings people together whatever their beliefs.
I irrationally hoped that someone would be present who had a near death experience and could provide evidence of an afterlife. Perhaps he or she floated through a shimmering tunnel toward choirs of angels before a Jesus-like being told this person that he or she had unfinished business back on earth. Nope. There was a man present who had experienced near death but there had been only dark oblivion. Yet he said that nearly dying was peaceful and not scary.
Another person graciously shared her perspective of finding herself at the end of her life far earlier than actuarial tables predicted. She said that she feels lonely when people, including health professionals like me, pretend she will get better. The aspects of dying that these two people shared taught me more than a library of reading could.
The Death Café poured grist into my existential thinking mill, and I pondered the conversations we had for weeks afterward. The event reinforced my belief that time is more precious than money. Our rations of time dwindle second by second and we do not know how long they will last. However, we can usually find ways to make more money. Since the Death Café, I increasingly recognize materialism and preoccupation with money as traps.
I am proud to report that the people in attendance raved about the desserts. We plan to hold another Death Café in winter 2018 if only to chase away the cold with cake, hot beverages, and intriguing conversation. Naturalistic Pagans are most welcome.
If you don’t fancy a trip to Ontario’s snow belt in the bleak mid-winter, organizing your own Death Café is easy. You just need a comfortable space, refreshments, and at least three people who can listen and talk. Visit http://deathcafe.com/ to find advice and to register and advertise your own Death Café, free of charge.
Death Café. (n.d.). What is a Death Café? Retrieved from: http://deathcafe.com/what/
Renee Lehnen is a registered nurse and recent empty nester living in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. With her new found free time, she enjoys outdoor sports, working on local environmental projects, and gazing at the sky wondering, “What does all of this mean?”