On Monday evening Sarah and I went to a Death Café – which had nothing at all to do with salmonella sandwiches or arsenic-laced americanos. Rather it was a gathering of 20 or 30 strangers who had come together to drink coffee, eat cake and talk about one of the least-discussed topics in today’s society, death.
We met in a friendly independent coffee shop in Perth, bought refreshments, found seats and introduced ourselves to our neighbours. The organiser said a few words about listening and sharing and respecting confidences, then pointed us to prompt cards on the tables and left us to get on with it.
Where would you like to be when you die? What things make for a good death? How would you like to be remembered? What is a good funeral? What is the number one item on your bucket list? These were just a few of the starter questions. The room soon became animated and noisy.
The thing that most surprised me was the age range. At 65 I would have considered myself more likely to be preoccupied with dying than someone aged 40. But that’s to overlook the fact that I don’t work in a hospital or the police force, for example; and whereas I think about it in an abstract way much more than I ever have before, I have still only experienced one death, my father’s, with any kind of proximity. Yet there were many people there much younger than me with a much closer acquaintance with death. My immediate neighbour had lost his wife when she was only 39.
The discussion ebbed and flowed and after a couple of hours the organiser called a halt and we drifted off into the evening. Although the conversations had been fragmentary and at times a little superficial, perhaps because there were too many people at our particular table, the overall effect I now realise was one of liberation. A taboo subject had been broached easily and naturally and without a hint of morbidness. A veil had been lifted on some seldom-frequented corner of my mind, a key turned in the door of a locked attic room. Death is a subject I’ll feel more confident about discussing in future.
By coincidence – although I increasingly tend to the view that there’s little that’s coincidental – I’d just received an email from a writer acquaintance whose wife had died recently. He was asking fellow writers for any recollections of her they might have, in order, as he said, ‘to put together a timeline of her life to pass on to any descendants she might have’.
In replying to him it occurred to me that what he was undertaking was an act of love, and it called to mind the very last paragraph of one of my favourite books, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by the American novelist, playwright and humanist, Thornton Wilder.
In his story a Jesuit priest witnesses a number of people fall to their deaths when the rope bridge carrying them across an Andean gorge collapses. He is haunted by the apparently random nature of the event and resolves to find meaning in it. He begins to look for connections between the people who died. Why had it been them? But the more he comes to know about their lives, the more remote becomes the possibility of an answer to his quest for meaning. His enquiries eventually lead to his own death and it is left to another character to conclude:
‘But soon we shall die and all memory [of those who died] will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.’
Which brings me back to the Death Café and the value of confronting the taboo. For surely to die in fear is to obstruct the transmission of that all-important love.
Death Cafés were started by Jon Underwood, a former London community worker, who based them on the work of Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist. There are now many hundreds across the world. See www.deathcafe.com