Hampstead: Talking about death to live life more fully
As a Unitarian minister serving an open minded spiritual community, I encounter discussions about death regularly. Families who are adrift having lost a loved one, agonise over planning a funeral which would honour the wishes of the deceased. The most successful memorial services combine suggestions from the person who has died with suggestions from the family; a completely pre-planned service gives no room for manoeuvre but if the loved one has not talked at all about what they want, that can cause even more distress to their family.
This is why I wanted to ensure that there was a safe space where people could talk about death in my neighbourhood. Prior to the Pandemic, I had run Death Cafes once a year - usually around Halloween - since there were other regular Death Cafes in the area. We usually had a good response. In October 2021, I held our first in-person Death Cafe for two years and at the end of the session, someone asked when the next one would be. ‘Err, this time next year?’ I replied, uncertain. There was a clamour for a more regular meeting since the local Death Cafes had ceased to meet in person due to Covid. With the help of a small team of volunteers, I have managed to offer a monthly Death Cafe at Rosslyn Hill Chapel in Hampstead on the last Sunday of the month.
We usually have around 12 - 20 people. We begin with brief introductions through the question ‘Why have you come here?’ then break to get tea and cake and divide into smaller groups of 6 - 8 people. Each person has 5 mins of uninterrupted time to share whatever is on their mind. We usually have a short period of silence between each speaker. Towards the end of the small group time there is a chance to respond or for general discussion. We end up back in a circle in the wider group to share any final reflections before the session finishes.
One participant described how, ‘It is beautiful how vulnerable some people are and courageous to share this vulnerability and doubt about the death issue.’ She described why she agreed to become a regular facilitator: ‘I am fascinated by humans in all their various experiences during different phases of their life. I am a childcare teacher because it is my passion to learn from youth as well as try and show what it is to nurture, share, and communicate with all kinds of populations. At the same time, I know that death is a part of every human's life at some point, and I am both curious as to how people, besides myself, have dealt with the loss of loved ones and face their own questions of mortality (for me spirituality plays a huge role).’
Another of our volunteer facilitators explained her experience: ‘Rosslyn Hill Cafe is held in a wonderful church, there is silence, a peaceful silence, an inviting silence, a restful silence, a soothing silence that holds me, inspires me and gives me the space to go into the depth to explore what usually I do not make time to explore. Initially, I went there because I was looking for a place where I could talk freely about death and related issues but then I have found people who listen. I feel heard by them and every time we leave the meeting, only after a couple of hours, I feel like they really see me. Now, I go there because I find that something is soothed inside me each time. I have decided to become a facilitator there because I wanted to give back the same gift that I have been gifted myself the first time I joined. What strikes me is the fact that when the meeting starts, I feel separated from people, yet by the end of the meeting I feel intimate with all of them because we have allowed ourselves to meet in our vulnerability. That is what ultimately we share as human beings. As a facilitator One of my treasured memories at Death Cafe is of two people who had come separately with loss, grief, loneliness, isolation, feeling not understood and then left the meeting together laughing and making jokes as if they had been friends for years.’
Our next Death Cafe is on 27 November 2 - 4pm. Although there is no meeting on 31 December (!), we will have an additional Death Cafe on 11 December. Our Morning Service at 11am on 11 December will be on the subject of Blue Christmas, specifically for those who find Christmas a difficult time of year. www.rosslynhillchapel.org.uk/whats-on
Photo: Kate Dean (left) and participants. Picture features imaginary refreshments since they were all cleared away before the photo was taken!