Talking about death is a spiritual experience
Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz had an intimate relationship with death since early childhood through family rituals and he built his life around it. Since 2004, he has organised and hosted numerous ‘death cafes’ in Switzerland, Belgium and France. Crettaz, who incorporates the study of death into his research, spread the popular events to Belgium and France. In 2011, the cafes started in the UK, where Jon Underwood, a former council worker, has hosted nearly two dozen, mostly in London and last year it came to the US.
The death cafe is an event where people talk about death in a relaxed environment. The idea is simple and plain. People come together over drinks and food to talk about life, death and mourning. They share their fears of the death of a relative, a child, a parent or spouse. They also share their fears and anxieties and talk about hope, lifestyle and “deathstyle”. In short, everything related to the death experience.
Their goal is to “discuss death, drink tea and eat delicious cake”. It makes us aware of the impermanence of the tea, cake and ourselves. Thus the objective of a death cafe is, “To increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives”. Death cafes are always offered on a not-for-profit basis. There, people express their views safely in an accessible, respectful and confidential space; free of discrimination. There is no intention of leading participants towards any particular conclusion or course of action. “A lot of people who come are just trying to figure it out,” said Lizzy Miles, 43, a hospice volunteer and social worker who organises the Columbus-area cafes in the US. “They want to figure out what death — and life — should be all about.”
For two hours, in small circles or in a larger group, they reflect on death. A facilitator may throw out questions to break the ice: How do they want to die? In their sleep? In the hospital? Of what cause? When do they want die? Is 105 too old? Are they scared? What kind of funerals do they want, if any? Is cremation better than burial? And what do they need accomplish before life is over? In the “anything-goes” style, people talk about death with respect and without taboos. “The goal is to raise death awareness with the view of helping people make the most of their lives. I’m really passionate about death,” affirms Lizzy Miles. She organises such events about once a month and draw a range of attendees, from new college graduates to recent retirees.
“I grew up with a lot of personal loss in my family and have had hospice experiences several times,” said Miles. “When my mother died, I had such a positive experience with the hospice volunteer and eventually decided to become a hospice volunteer.” When she says that she is a hospice volunteer, people are surprised and exclaims: ‘Oh, it must take a special person.’ Afterwards, when the same people meet her, “people are suddenly unloading their stories of death.”
Once the conversation begins, it develops naturally. Some people want to talk about creating wills and advance medical directives, such as “do not resuscitate” orders. Others prefer to share near-death experiences and communicating with the dead. Then there’s often the question of what happens after death — is there a heaven or hell? Different views on death held by religious traditions also commonly arise.
Just being able to share our fears, hopes and anxiety is in itself, a spiritual experience. That we can share our greatest fear — death — in a spontaneous, relaxed and respectful manner is surely liberating in itself.
(The writer is a professor of science and religion)