This week I attended my first Death Café.
It was held in the upstairs of Blighty Coffee in Finsbury Park, north London. Running the session were two women who trained as End of Life Doulas.
The format of this Death Café was simple. Join a table, introduce yourself and why the Death Café attracted you, and let the conversation flow. There’s no agenda, or rules. It’s not therapeutic, but it is supportive.
All you do is talk and listen, ask and consider your responses. In our group we had a filmmaker, two academics, someone obsessed with death since a child, an anthropology student and a pregnancy photographer.
It sounds morbid, but Death Cafés are vibrant places.
The founding notion is that people just don’t talk enough about death. About their own, about the demise of others, about the deep, dark places thinking about death can take them too, about the happiness that comes from understanding that life will one day end.
The topics we covered ranged from West Indian funerals to reincarnation, how motherhood changes your relationship to your own mortality and how procrastination eats into precious time but is also a reminder that we don’t need to rush through our lives.
I didn’t envisage Death Cafés as part of my writing and ageing research, but after an evening talking about end of life, good deaths and personal philosophies, I realised what a vital space this could be for older people and artists working with elders, with bereavement and in end of life facilities.
It’s amazing to find a place where small talk was swiftly replaced with big thinking in favour of big thinking. Somewhere which proves the value of facing your own fears about death in a safe place with others.
One of the reasons I embarked upon my Writers Meet Elders research was that after months of working with older people in care, I found I didn’t have anyone to talk to about the feelings arising.
The exhilaration, confusion and sadnesses. Mostly I enjoyed the work, mostly the elders I worked with were warm and receptive, chatty and cheerful. But sometimes people whispered that their sharp minds were trapped in ageing bodies, or how they were filling time with activities to ward off encroaching loneliness. Families didn’t visit, health was failing.
Something like the Death Café – a positive and open space to consider what it meant to be facing the end of life – may have helped me, and helped them too.