There’s a gathering buzz around the Death Café phenomenon – there have been 3859 in 40 countries including Iceland and South Korea – and so when one was announced in my ‘hood and in the perfect location, Kensal Green Cemetery’s Dissenter’s Chapel*, I knew I had to go. After all, I have said on numerous occasions that our ethos at AoA includes breaking through the death barrier. Not to live forever like the Immortalists*, but in order to shatter the taboo. I’ve also stated that I’d like to ‘review’ funerals but I have yet to be offered one.
The night before the Death Café – a social franchise where people gather, drink tea, eat cake, and discuss death with the stated aim ‘is to help people make the most of their (finite) lives’ – I started to research what was happening around death instead of the classic funeral. I found a video of a woman in Britain who picked up her mother’s body from the mortuary, placed it in her camper van and drove to a field where she and her friends dug a very deep hole and gently lowered her mother into it. No undertakers, no coffin, no service, this was the ultimate in DIY and legal. Excellent. But most people have no idea what is legal and what is not around death and dying.
Which is exactly why a Death Café is such good news. There’s so much to find out and exchange.
I invited my friend, Amanda who lives round the corner from me. We met in Ladbroke Grove outside the entrance. She had managed to ignore the Death part, and only seen the café. She thought she was meeting me for a coffee and a chat, although was slight bemused and bewildered at the location.
“No, it’s a Death Café where we’ll be talking about our mortality,” I whispered loudly whilst urging her into the newly decorated Dissenter’s Gallery which even has a little potential bar these days. And am instantly drawn to a large woven artwork by local artist, Zoe Landau Kouson , which looks as though it has writhing knots of brilliant breasts all over it. Feeding breasts, dancing breasts, tribal breasts, animal breasts and more.
Twelve of us sit in a circle on hard wooden chairs with the ideal Death café view – through the large nineteenth century iron gate – are the leaning gravestones, the modern graves and the Victorian tombs all thrown together in nature and peace.
The de rigeur tea and biscuits are pretty rudimentary – in Sussex they probably do a funereal spread with coffin cupcakes and Death by Chocolate – but hey, it’s the participants that count. And these people are marvelous in their eclecticism.
Mark, our unpaid facilitator during this two hour dialogue, has a skull broach on his lapel just for confirmation of his status. He explains the roots of the Death Café – originally Le Café Mortal started by Swiss anthropologist and sociologist, Bernard Crettaz in 2004 in order ‘to break the tyranny of silence around death’ – the idea was taken up by a mother, Sue Barsley Reid and son, Jon Underwood in Hackney,2010. They haven’t looked back. Death Cafés are popping up everywhere these days and a very good sign that is.
I remember writing an article in Time Out in the mid-80s at the height of the Aids deaths where I suggested that the advent of these often oh-too-young people leaving us so tragically would change our ways of dying forever. And to some extent, that has happened. Aids funerals were bold and brave and out there in a way that proclaimed we die as we live – there were coffins that stood up, there was waving to the coffins as they departed behind the curtain, there was Barbara Streisand singing. Funerals have become freer – I went to a Catholic one the other day and even that had much more individuality than in the past - and more personal. And yet open conversation about, for instance, plans for death and dying still remain rare.
And so, we share one by one about why we’ve come. I say that my 90 year old mother nearly died of sepsis recently, which has been instrumental in me thinking about wanting to take control of my own death. In some ways impossible but in other ways worth reflecting upon. And then I explain that I edit this magazine, and that we recently had an article where someone with a brain tumor living in Australia decided to buy some Nembutal so that he could enable his own death rather than wait for an increasingly painful end. Finally, he was in a hospice and could no longer play the harmonium, he found a window of opportunity, went to the toilet and took the Nembutal.
Before I know it, Amanda who thought she was just popping out for a little catch up, is talking about how she felt like an orphan as both her parents had died. An American woman wants to talk about cultural differences, another young man is becoming a hospice nurse and more that I'm not allowed to reveal because of the confidentiality clause.
I’m impressed by our collective energy and enthusiasm for the topic, and the multitude of attitudes and interests.
And I’m moved when we start to share more deeply about a good death might look like. Amanda talks passionately about wanting to die without the anguish that she felt both her parents experienced when they were approaching death. “I really want to be able to accept what’s happening,” she says. I really feel the depth of her sharing. This is Saturday morning, and suddenly there’s such an intimacy in this wonderful little chapel.
Talking so openly about death and what it means to us personally brings a warmth and closeness. There’s a feeling of community already where this sort of exchange is possible. It’s strangely exhilarating in the way that being about to talk about your secret desires and fears can be.
Josephine Speyer, a psychotherapist specializing in loss and bereavement, as well as being the co-founder of The Natural Death Centre (they do a great handbook about everything you need to know about death) who also holds Death Cafes is present. She has a softness that curls around us as she talks about a powerful moment when her husband appeared to her soon after he died. She’s also a keen advocate for death education and says that knowing what to do when her husband died suddenly, helped a lot.
There are moments of lightness too. One woman who is a friend of Kensal Green cemetery tells us about her favourite funeral. “It was one where my friend donated his body to science so there was no funeral, just a party in a restaurant where we remembered him.”
The representative from Dignity in Dying confesses that she hasn’t made a will. I haven’t either. But we are the minority in the room as Mark gets us to put our hands up. “Well, that is unusual,” he announces, “most people here have made their wills.”
The American couple don’t have children and they explain that making a will has felt like an act of generosity for them. Basically, they have given their assets to chosen family and friends, the result being that they feel content with their decisions.
Neither Amanda nor I want to leave. This is a dialogue we could have kept on contributing to and being fascinated by. Funnily enough, we left inspired, moved and determined to visit a Death Café again soon. There’s something so compelling about this level of realness.
Look up a Death Café near you on deathcafe.com or start one up yourself through the website.
*The Dissenter’s Chapel was built as part of Kensal Green Cemetery’s eastern part for non-Anglicans to perform their own rites, and is still in use for funerals today.
*There is now a Dissenter’s Gallery, which is managed by Michael Speechley, which is involved in all sorts of exciting projects including the Death Café. Dissentersgallery.com
*The Immortalists are a community in the US who believe that they will live forever.