Review: September’s Death Cafe

East Dulwich Death Café held on 19 September 2017

‘A day spent not remembering death is a day wasted’

The other evening, I took the opportunity to attend an event at a small café in South London. This event was hosted by the South East London Humanist Group (SELHuG) and called Death Café, which is a space for those who wish to talk openly about death. You may be thinking that an evening speaking about death and associated matters could not possibly be pleasant, but you would be dead wrong, pun intended.

The aim is not to try to deal with grief or offer support for a recent loss. There is no counselling or instructions regarding planning one’s death. This is just a space to have an open and frank philosophical discussion, and share thoughts and experiences around anything death related.

This is not a new concept, but for me, it is an important one that needs to be aired. The Death Cafés were first set up in the UK by Jon Underwood. He was a Buddhist and had been contemplating upon the philosophical questions revolving around dying. He started the Death Café in his basement, in Hackney East London in 2011. Underwood died on 27th June, 2017. (New York Times 11 July 11)

This event was attended by a group of ordinary people, no Goths or undertakers or special interest groups, just your ordinary Jo’s and Joe’s who want to take the time to talk about a subject that, in British culture, is somewhat taboo, or at best, is talked about in a whispered voice.

Whilst this event was set up by SELHuG and there were some humanists there, it was not a humanist event and was open to all, which meant that the views and feelings expressed were wide ranging and from varying perspectives. This made for fruitful and interesting discussions.

The topics that were raised were about grieving, a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ death; this was coupled with the question of for whom death was ‘good and bad’ for. The emotions, expectations, and automatic assumptions that are made by others around us were challenged and discussed.

We, as a society, have the ‘cling to life at all cost’ mentality, fuelled by the ‘pain and suffering is good’ adage. So, dying of a terminal illness can be seen as ‘good’, as you have time to say your goodbyes, make your peace with those around you, and be prepared for the impending death; yet it is a painful process. Not only for the person dying but also for those who have to witness you suffer.

Sudden death has its ‘benefits’ too: no pain, and possibly no real awareness that you are about to die. But there is no time to prepare and no time for farewells.

There was also an interesting discussion about death not being about the person who has died, but more about the people left behind, their emotions and their baggage. This affects how we prepare for death, either our own or that of those around us. We looked at how we react to others’ deaths. Someone mentioned that when someone famous dies or anyone for that matter we only hear how wonderful they were, as culturally we ‘don’t speak ill of the dead’.

Another brief discussion took place about suicide and how different cultures view this act. Shintoism, for example, in the Japanese culture, viewed it as ‘noble’. My view is that if we had a more open discussion about suicide and less stigma around it, we might be able to look at the issues of assisted suicide and not panic and go into complete melt-down at the very mention of the word.

My major take-away from this meeting was that death is a taboo subject because we, as a society, are afraid – afraid of how we or others will feel, and worried about how we will die. As mentioned before, these are not new topics, and there was no attempt to try to bring something shining and new to the table. The fact that people, who didn’t know each other, saw an advert on the internet and took the time to come together suggests that there is a need, a need to discuss and look at this topic openly, honestly and without fear.

This was my first experience of a Death Café, and I enjoyed it. If you get the opportunity to attend one, I encourage you to do so. We need to do away with the hushed tones and shout out at the inevitable, look it in the eye and say, “I know I’m gonna die, and it’s ok. Now, I can live”.

By Audrey Simmons of London Black Atheists and SELHuG