People are talking about…. Death
Well, it was a lot of fun.
We were there to talk about death.
I intended to be a curious onlooker, but my idea of sitting quietly in a corner was smashed to bits as I quickly became engaged in discussion upon my first visit to the Death Café.
Death Café is based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz who pioneered the 'Cafe Mortels' in Switzerland. One could reasonably attend a Death Café in over nine countries, in two hundred different locations. JonUnderwood set up the first Death Café in London in his home in Hackney. He says the objective of Death Café is "To increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives".
On the top floor of a restaurant with a view of Hampstead High Street, people straggled into a dining room set with large tables. Most of us were strangers to one other. I was invited to sit at any table of my choosing with others who became my group for the evening. Speaking over the clamour of plates of omelettes and Petite Bouchée, cups of coffees and teas, our facilitator, a psychotherapist, steered the direction of the evening by posing questions:
Why are you here?
What is your idea of a good death?
I was impressed with the mutual respect and authenticity that was immediately present in our group. It was an intimate and safe environment – all conversations are confidential. We were a lively bunch from hugely different backgrounds and beliefs: A hospice chaplain, an advocate for changing end-of-life laws, a businessman, a teacher, a widow, and me, an undertaker’s daughter.
The biggest laugh at our table came from a man’s description of his perfect death. His vision was so specific and detailed that it felt as if we had stepped into his massive control tower as he described how he would orchestrate his last moments on earth.
I spoke about how a death changes those left behind.
No one cried. It wasn’t like that.
There was a cake break.
At the end of the three-hour session we were asked to turn our chairs to face the centre of the room. We’d been so engrossed in our own groups that for the first time during the evening we gained a sense of how many people shared the space – about fifty - it was another fully booked evening.
Just as I was leaving, a man who’d been in my group approached me. He told me that he imagined me as a little girl, standing alongside my father helping him to wash a corpse. I had offered no such description and had relayed only that I had grown up in a funeral home, nothing more. Funny that. As he spoke he mimed washing a body, making long strokes with his hands. It seemed to comfort him. And when he had completed washing that phantom body, I smiled and said good night.