Tuesday, 07 January 2014
The New Way of Talking About Death and Dying
PERSONAL NOTE: I was overwhelmed yesterday when I returned home from a meeting in the late morning to a huge number of emails from readers asking if I was all right - there was no new story posted nor email sent - and the messages kept coming during the day.
It was entirely my mistake. I always set the next day's post to publish at 5:30AM Pacific Time and the email usually goes out within two hours. But I had accidentally set the publish time to 5:30PM so no email was sent until many hours later.
I am deeply touched by the concern of so many of you. What a bunch of wonderful, caring readers I have.
Death Cafe. You could say the idea has been sweeping not just one country, but the world. Death Cafes began in Switzerland in 2004 and gained momentum when the first one in England was held in 2011.
There now are regularly scheduled Death Cafes there, in Europe, North America, Australia and Asia.
So what's a death cafe? you may ask. For the sake of succinctness, I'll let the folks at deathcafe.com (of course, you knew there is a website) explain in their simplest terms:
At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. The objective of Death Cafe is to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
Death is hard to talk about. Most people find it too morbid to take part in such a discussion and many elders find that when they try to talk about details surrounding their eventual demise, family members refuse to listen, brushing it off with some such platitude as, “Oh, you've got many years left.”
Yeah, maybe so. And maybe not. It is frustrating when younger relatives refuse to engage. But it's not just the practicalities of death and dying as we get closer to our demise. Everyone, young and old, religious and atheist, fearful and not, in their quiet moments alone ponders the mystery of death.
Jon Underwood, the man who is said to have held that first 2011 Death Cafe in England told The New York Times that he envisioned Death Cafe as
“...a space where people can discuss death and find meaning and reflect on what’s important and ask profound questions.”
As it happens, I went to a Death Cafe for the first time in early December. It was well attended, 35 or 40 people scattered among seven or eight round tables, and formally facilitated by a professional “life cycle celebrant” - whatever that is.
If you're a regular at this blog, you can easily guess that I didn't sign up without having thoroughly researched Death Cafes both online and off in-personal conversations with people familiar with them.
From doing that work, I learned that Death Cafes are not counseling sessions. As one participant explained,
"'This isn't therapy. This isn't a support group'...The purpose is to get people to become comfortable talking about death, she said, not to mourn those lost or get advice on estate planning.”
Which is precisely what I had been reading around the web and was told to me by the people I spoke with. Other important elements imparted to me are also listed at the deathcafe website. The gatherings are held
”...on a not-for-profit basis...[and] with no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action.”
Maybe I'm just unlucky but that's not what happened at my Death Cafe in December.
After the six at my table introduced ourselves, the first attendee to speak went on at numbing length about how he could not decide which relative to name as a trustee of his wealth.
I thought this was a question better put to an attorney or close friend than strangers but I bit my tongue and daydreamed for the 15 or 20 minutes he continued explaining his pro and con reasoning in excruciating detail.
Even when we at last moved on to other topics, he kept circling back and that wasn't the worst.
One of the principles of Death Cafes is that attendees leave their professional credentials at the door and as just noted above, do not use the sessions to hype business interests.
But a woman with a newly-acquired, late-age college degree in some type of counseling I don't recall, used every moment she spoke to promote her new counseling service. When, during the break she was advised to stop, she came back to tell us she had been chastised, then continued during the second half of our discussion to promote her business while giving, each time, a little giggle - "oops, tee-hee I'm not supposed to say that."
It was hard to refrain from smacking her.
So, my Death Cafe was a bust. But I know from personal conversation and reports on the web that my experience is not usual.
I flatter myself that having survived, from childhood, decades of a knee-wobbling fear of death and overcome it, I don't need Death Cafes. That may or may not be so but they are, I believe, useful and worthy and an excellent way of toppling a taboo that needs it.
As we settle into the new year, I'll be looking for upcoming Death Cafes in my area and deathcafe.com has a search engine for upcoming gatherings. On the same page, organizers from around the world list details of their scheduled Death Cafes.
Given my first experience, however, next time I will ask a lot of careful questions of the organizers before I decide to attend.
Have you been to a Death Cafe? If so, what was your experience? If not, are you interested?
In addition to good information at deathcafe.com, there is a lot more that is useful and interesting elsewhere online. Just search “death cafes” and you will be rewarded with many good choices.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ross Middleton: Mandela