An evening at the Death Café

Posted by Jools Barsky on Nov. 12, 2019, 11:20 a.m.





An evening at the Death Café



A couple of months ago, I spent an evening at a “ death café’. If that phrase

means nothing to you, then I should say immediately that it has nothing to do with

assisted suicide, shades of grey sexuality or even some misguided dress fetish,

harking back to the goth era.

On the contrary, it was an exceedingly respectable encounter. Held in a café

in a small town in Gloucestershire, a group of maybe fifteen or sixteen people who

had never met each other gathered in response to posters and local advertising. The

age range was wide: from a young woman in her twenties up through both men and

women in their 60’s or older, and for the next couple of hours in groups and

together over tea, coffee and cakes we talked about death. 

Two facilitators helped to run the evening. After a short introduction, they

asked us each to say a little about ourselves and why we were there. Anyone who’s

experienced any kind of group therapy will know it’s important for everyone to find

their voice early so they will be comfortable talking more. And when the subject is

death, comfort is pretty important. 

For reasons of confidentiality I can’t tell you what other people said, though I

betray no secrets if I say a couple of them were dealing with the prospect more

immediately, either for themselves or someone close. A few others had worked all

their lives in the caring professions so had experience of dealing with death, and

having moved on or retired felt this was a good time for them to think about it a

more personal way. Some wanted more practical help.  Thinking ahead as what

should go into that folder to be left behind. Copies of the will, funeral plans, financial

papers, maybe the letter one wanted to write to one’s children or next of kin. Then

there were more existential questions. But if I can’t disclose other people’s stories, I

can tell you what I said. Though you’ll have to believe me when I add that I didn’t

really know what was going to come out of my mouth until I opened it. I had come –

I thought - in a rather dispassionate way. As a novelist working in history, I’ve spent a

lot of my life resurrecting the dead, yet never connected their passing with my own

and I also felt, like many people I suspect, that we simply don’t talk about enough

about it, and I wanted to confront that. 

But when it came to my turn what I actually said was this: that I had been in

my early 30’s when my father died.  And that his illness and death – one following

close on the other - had poleaxed me emotionally, so that I found myself drowning in

grief, a state that lasted for a debilitating length of time.  That that was many years

ago now but that as an adult with grown up children myself I was worried that my

own death (which is certainly not imminent as far as I know) might have the same

impact on them. And it seemed to me that one of my last jobs as a parent was to –

well, I suppose - show them how to die well. To make it somehow part of life, so

they in turn might eventually might find it easier when it came to their own. 


Looking back on it, it was a tall order for a couple of hours chat and in the

end I didn’t get talk very much about that. Which was maybe no bad thing, because

while it happened a long time ago, reliving it is still unnerving. 

After a while, the group divided into two sections. Those who had come for

practical help and those who wanted – and I can think of no other way of saying this

–  to find a way to) living day to day with the idea of dying.  

It is the most extraordinary thing about humans – that along with our – albeit

limited ability to prepare for an unknown future - we find it very hard to accept the

unassailable fact of our own end.  It is literally impossible to imagine how it will be

when we are dead. Which in itself is absurd, because of course “we” will not be

there, for it to “be” anything at all. And yet the dread remains. And with it all those

answerable questions about the meaning of life.

Historically, religion offered -and for many people still does - a terrific solace.

I have no wish to change anybody’s ’mind on the idea of life after death. Indeed,

there are times when I feel a kind of raw envy for it.  Secular gurus might wax lyrical

about the joy of the evolutionary journey alla Richard Dawkins, but it doesn’t scratch

my itch when it comes to grappling with the thought of my own extinction. 

For the longest time, because death so often came accompanied by

unalleviated suffering -  it served to concentrate the mind mightily on what might be

to come. Heaven – like happiness – tends to write white, but walk into any church

where images of the past are preserved - and as a student of renaissance my mind is

full of them – and hell is technicolour, screaming agony. 

Interestingly, when western society started on the path that would alleviate

many of the death agonies, the arrival of analgesics in the mid 19th century, the only

voices to question the wonder came from inside in the church, fearing that making

death easier might make people turn less readily to God as they approached it. 

Hell is a largely discredited place these days. And death, once such a stable of

existence; infant mortality, plagues, epidemics and hundred other killer illnesses, has

much less dominion over us thanks to the astonishing progress of medical science.

Not to mention the rise and rise of consumer culture. In terms of the landmarks rites

of passage:  birth, marriage and death, the first two are doing a roaring trade: the

import of baby showers from America and the current lunatic extravagance of

weddings. In contrast, death lives in the shadows – for most in takes places in the

sanitised environment of a hospital, followed by a brief ritual in a perfectly

manicured crematorium in some out of town location; opportunities for event

management strictly limited.  Apart from royal or superstar deaths, there is little

opportunity for grief as shared bonding or a reason for pomp and pageant – not to

mention the expenditure that, for instance, many wealthy Victorian went in for.  Our

19th ancestors may have had trouble talking about sex, but they had no qualms

going public with a good funeral. 

Our lack of experience when it comes to handling death – has, not

surprisingly, made it more frightening. And it is that fear – and that silence - that the

Death Café was founded to address. It was the brain child of the

Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz – a way to challenge what he

called "tyrannical secrecy"  over dying.  In 2004 He began to organise and facilitate

small gatherings of people in an informal setting to talk, in whatever way they


wanted, about their own or other people’s demise. Through him and the continued

work of  ts British founder, Jon Underwood, who died painfully young in 2017, the

Death Cafe has inspired thousands of gatherings in many different parts of the

world. Each in their own way, I suspect, as varied as the one I attended 

So, what did we get out of the evening? Well, I’m not sure there were any

great revelations but then I don’t think that was the point. For a valuable couple of

hours, we all talked about death as if it was a part of being alive. And it gave me

some personal insight. 

At a certain point, I found myself retelling a particularly raw moment in my

father’s dying. When, as I sat at his bedside – and it would have been only a few days

before he died - he said to me.  ‘You know I am going to miss you so much. ‘

I think it was that admission that unlocked the sluice gates on my grief. And it

was so painful that I had decided I must never say such a thing to my own children. 

Because of course, it would be them not me who would do the missing. 

The facilitator listened gently, before going on to point out that it had clearly

been something my father had needed to say. In effect, it was the greatest

expression of love he could offer me. And if we were going to start giving death a

more natural place in our lives, then we, the living, would have to learn how to

better support and listen to those doing the dying. Because at that moment it was

not about us, but about them. 

So, would I visit another death café? Certainly. If just to be among a group of

strangers willing to talk about something we usually ignore.  As to whether it might

help me when it comes to my own dying? Alas, that is something I will not be able to

come back to tell you about.

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