Serving Up Death

My very first experience attending a Death Café was in a mortuary. The last time I was in such a building was for my mother’s funeral four years prior.  Separated by 3000 miles, the buildings felt eerily the same: the same wood paneling, the same smells and sounds. 

Death Cafés began in Switzerland in 2004.  They were the brainchild of sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz, and later popularized by Londoner Jon Underwood and his mother, Sue Barsky Reed, who wanted to create a place and a space to talk openly about issues related to death and dying. 

The format of these gatherings is similar to that of twelve step programs; the groups are run by volunteers, no hierarchy exists and anyone is free to talk about their issues, pose questions and get feedback.  The only rule is one of respect: no interrupting, arguing or proselytizing.

My particular group was comprised primarily of older adults who are facing their own mortality head on.  One young man, however, was trying to make sense of his father’s dying process; another young man mostly observed.  In Death Café, no one is required to say a thing; in fact, monopolizing the conversation is discouraged (although I noted that one man did talk a bit much and no one intervened).

Passed On, Away, and Over

Because I spend more time thinking about death than I’d like to admit, I didn’t come away learning anything new but rather reinforcing my belief that talking about death and dying is mostly uncomfortable and highly personal. 

During my tenure as a high school counselor, two students on my caseload died tragically within months of each other: one by his own hand and the other in a car accident.  I was the container for lots of anger and grief expressed by my students and their parents.  As an example of how the body reacts to stress, I contracted pneumonia twice during that period. Wisely, my school district sent me to a workshop for counselors and therapists directly affected by client deaths.

In that workshop, I learned that part of accepting death is using clear language.  Instead of “passed away” or “passed on”, we were encouraged to simply say, someone died. This was very comforting to me; I prefer direct language rather than the use of euphemisms.  I’ve noticed, however, that most people in our culture use “passed away.”  This was certainly true among those participating in the Death Café I attended.

In researching how this odd referencing originated, I discovered that such nomenclature became the norm in the 70’s.  Whether consciously or not, people think it’s rude to say, “he died.”  Even when we’re supposed to openly talk about death and dying, we apparently believe we must gently tip-toe around the reality of death.

The source of this shift from saying someone died to passed away can’t be traced to traditional Western religions, as one might assume.  Have you ever heard someone say, “Jesus passed away on the cross” or “Jesus passed away for our sins”?

Successful Dying

Talking about one’s own death does not make you the most fun person or sought after party-goer, but preliminary research indicates it can make you more successful. This makes sense to me.  If you acknowledge your time is limited, you try to make the most of the time you have.

Anecdotally we’ve heard that some people, who have faced their mortality through life-threatening diseases or conditions, claim to feel “happier” than they did prior to their disease or condition. Some say they got closer to their core values after their brushes with death.

In my younger years, bucket lists (as in: things to do before kicking the bucket) confused me in.  I didn’t understand what difference visiting Paris or trekking the Himalayas would be once you’re dead and gone.  Now I realize that those rich experiences help us appreciate our precious lives and provide meaning and context for all the other crazy and mundane activities that fill our lives such as cleaning latrines, filing taxes and being stuck in traffic.

Our death-denying culture doesn’t normally create spaces for open discussions about death and dying.  Forums like Death Cafés fill this void; the more we talk about this inescapable consequence of life, the more courageous (and less anxious) we can be when facing our own mortality.

A research team led by psychologist Kurt Gray in 2017 (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill) found that the reality of dying is overall less scary than what most of us imagine.  After analyzing the words of those whose death was imminent, the researchers found the pervasive attitude to be positive.  Dr. Gray concluded that: “death is inevitable, dread is not.”

 “I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens.” 

                                                                                    ---Woody Allen