For many, death is fraught with denial. But there is a groundswell of people (mostly strangers) who, over cake, are actually meeting specifically to talk about it.
The Death Cafe movement is gaining traction in a world where we are shown daily how fragile, how finite, our lives are. It is not a morbid affair, it is a gathering of people who have questions, who come together to talk and listen to others, with questions.
“Sometimes,” says Lani Schwartz, “there are answers. But the idea is to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
Lani asks: “How many people in your circle will talk with you about death?” I am lucky, I realise. Most of mine would. But for many more, the subject is taboo, a fear-filled and discouraged topic. Regard-
less of the fact that – brutally honestly – none of us get out of here alive.
Lani hosts the Deep South Death Cafe with her friend Jean Vixon. The two met at a Death Cafe in Woodstock and decided that the far south needed its own cafe to ruminate on the end of life. So, thanks to these women, you have the option of gathering in the Glencairn Hotel on Monday, November 13, at 6.30pm, for two hours of talk on the topic.
Lani describes the experience as a group-directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes. She also points out that it is a discussion group, rather than a grief support or counselling session.
Death Cafes are always offered on a not-for-profit basis and with no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action. And don’t forget the cake, Lani laughs.
Lani’s interest in death has always been part of her world, but a brush with her own mortality 10 years ago when she was diagnosed with cancer solidified her interest. She is cancer-free now, but sharply more aware of the unpredictability of life. “Looking at death actually redefines how we want to live. It grants perspective, and rather than being morbid, can motivate people to truly live,” she says.
Subject matter is varied and Lani says she has heard an array of thoughts on the right to die issue, on near-death experiences, on what people think happens after death; to name just a few. Jean’s impulse to start Deep South Death Cafe was rooted in the urge to de-stigmatise death and dying, believing that knowledge makes the inevitable less terrifying, and offers people tools to help them with their own, and the death of their loved ones.
The Death Cafe model was developed by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid, based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz and spread like wildfire across Europe, North America and Australasia. There have been roughly 5 356 Death Cafes established in 52 countries since September 2011, and the numbers are growing. Part of the appeal is that anyone can start one in their own community, and link to the global community to offer feedback and insights.
The Death Cafe South Africa Facebook page is regularly updated with options for living wills and other death-related topics to more fully inform and prepare people.
Lani says that being brave enough to look into and prepare for our own death also simplifies the process for those we leave behind.
Death Cafe has no staff and is run on a voluntary basis. It was started by Jon Underwood in Hackney, East London. Lizzy Miles
who ran the first Death Cafe in the US and Megan Mooney who
runs the Death Cafe Facebook page have also played a significant role in Death Cafe’s develop-
Jon died suddenly on June 27 this year, after collapsing from acute promyelocytic leukaemia on June 25. His wife Donna wrote on the Death Cafe Facebook page: “With shocking poignancy on Sunday June 25, we experienced the finiteness of life at its most brutal. And more specifically the finiteness of the life of Jon Underwood, founder of Death Cafe, dad to two truly amazing children and my husband. He was 44.” She added: “Comfort is very hard to find right now, but there is some in the fact that, through his work helping people come to terms with the idea of death, Jon was uniquely and unusually aware that life is short and appreciated his life fully, reflecting on this through daily practice. ‘Life is good Donna’ he would remind me regularly when I got lost in the challenges of the minutiae. I do this all the time, but Jon didn’t. He lived every day reflecting very consciously on the fact that none of us know how long we have and focused completely on being present in, and making the most of every minute. This was how he lived his life and through his work he helped so many others to live this way too.”
Tecumseh was a Native American Shawnee warrior and chief, who became the primary leader of a large, multi-tribal confederacy in the early years of the nineteenth century. His quote sums up the vastly different approach to death held in previous times, and a different culture. He said: “When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.”