Since arriving in Dumfries, I’ve been daily graced by a generous view of the local cemetery just across from a park suffocating with screaming, hyperactive children.
At first sight, I was struck by how unassumingly picturesque it was—the cemetery sprawls across the side of a hill, rows of stone teeth unnervingly still against swaying trees, diving seagulls, casual prams. By now, I’ve seen it from several angles, like a star-struck voyeur with a camera phone: pixelated paparazzi shots from a distance, mise-en-scène long shots, careful modeling close-ups of particularly fashionable headstones. It’s such a dynamic momento mori, either melting into the traditional, creepy eeriness of an overcast night, or donning the rustic, removed quality of red sandstone ruins under a dazzling sun—but always concentrated, a vacuum of sight, sound, scrutiny. I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to have this huge void of dead space always within sight, handy for times of unexpected existential crisis and untimely rumination. But no one seems to notice.
It takes up space, yes, but it easily becomes part of the scenery.
It feels like it should be an ironic statement: Give or take X amount of time, that little boy hanging off the monkey bars needs only cross the short width of the river to lay right next to his centuries old ancestors. The whole cycle of birth and death and everything in between is encompassed in this small area of pregnant mothers and elderly men with walking sticks, and one would think that this might be cause for some deep philosophical, pragmatic thought. But the shadows of the gravestones don’t quite make it past the riverside, and therein lies the rub.
How can we be prepared for end of life when we haven’t spared it a thought all our lives?
For the past month with the End of Life Studies team, I’ve been reading about and making an exhaustive list of iterations of the “death café phenomenon”—typically, a casual event in which people gather around cake and tea to talk about death and dying.
Its purported prototype, the café mortel of Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz, first took place in 2004 at the Restaurant du Théâtre du Passage in Neuchâtel. In his book, Café Mortels: Sortir la mort du silence, Crettaz describes his desire to break the secrecy surrounding death to help contemporary society be better prepared for death, the funeral process, and a life of loss. In sharp contrast to the popular media portrayal of silent rows of black and white slowly dispersing until a single figure stands lonely by the grave, his café mortel conjures up the image of the traditional “repas d’enterrement,” a sumptuous post-funeral meal of festivity and laughter. He details accounts of participants “breaking the silence” surrounding their grief and fears, finding a community that brings them back from the ledge when they realize that their experiences of loss, so well-hidden in everyday society, are more common than they think—they find that over half the room has lost a child/friend, is afraid of dying, is dying, and that they have/can/will get through this. Deep secrets are revealed, weights are lifted, and, as he proclaims, it seems that lives change for the better.
But the death café was never intended to be therapy, though it may be a pleasant side effect and a gentle impetus to find a therapist.
An underlying principle, terror management theory (TMT), seems to draw in loyal patrons and crowds to death cafés and other initiatives around the world. Drawing from anthropologist Ernest Becker and psychoanalyst Otto Rank, it posits that “the awareness of death is a critical motivating force in human behavior,” both negative and positive (Vail). Acknowledgement and consideration of one’s impermanence and death, if managed poorly, can lead to “evaluative biases, defensive distortions, and the aggressive protection of one’s cultural beliefs and self-esteem” (Vail).
In placing the focus on the positive potential of TMT, it seems that a number of physical, social, and psychological benefits can be cultivated; and we can see these effects in our own everyday behavior and adages: perhaps we’ll exercise a bit more when we see that our blood pressure is too high, become more prosocial after a natural disaster or a brush with death. Perhaps the death café acts as a training center, giving participants the rare opportunity to address their perception towards death and dying, see what works and what doesn’t. It’s not a matter of morbid fascination, but a means of survival and self-improvement.
And many are jumping in to join this danse macabre—death café is but a component of the rising popular death awareness movement, from organizations like Dying Matters and The GoundSwell Project in Europe, to large festivals like Hong Kong’s DEAtHFEST with over 9,000 in attendance, to college classes that initiate their own platform for conversation, like Death Over Dinner in the U.S.
People do want to talk about death—and we all need to talk about death.
Beyond terror management theory and other theories on the subconscious hold death has on our lives is the more concrete fact that a large majority of people aren’t ready for the end of life—that many do not die at home as they wish, that many grieve with the trauma of last-minute resuscitation and lack of closure. There are forms to fill, but they lay sandwiched in with a number of other papers from your colonoscopy or tucked somewhere in the recesses of a filing cabinet in the doctor’s office. Perhaps it’s a good idea to be proactive—but where/when/how can we even begin to talk about this “taboo” when nobody seems ready to listen and respond?
The appeal of the death café and its counterparts lies in its accessibility—there is no need to schedule an appointment, to brace oneself for a terrifying heart-to-heart. Death is reclaimed around a dinner table, or a set of cards that make conversation easier, entertaining, earnestly sincere. Perhaps it might be a bit hard to imagine Ivan Ilych sitting down with his family over tea and talking about his bad kidney, but it’s the start of a road paved with good refreshments.
By now, I too have become habituated to that cemetery across the park—it hasn’t quite melted into the scenery, but remains an itch in the back of my mind, a stretch of pavement that commands me to hold my breath. It’s not too often that the distance between yourself and the near end is closed so manifestly, but there’s something telling about realizing that the mortuary in the hospital is just a few floors down, that these patients will be permanently checking out in less than 6 months, that this little boy will maybe grow up and grow old—and they’ll all meet in the cemetery just across the river, while your feet pad across bones buried under aeons of sediment and time. Returning home.
Death is life-affirming, if only because it makes the world uncompromisingly and sometimes intimidatingly finite. And perhaps the best way to talk and ruminate about death is not alone, but with others: to look at that cemetery straight on and acknowledge it. Together. Over tea and cake.
Vail KE 3rd1, Juhl J, Arndt J, Vess M, Routledge C, Rutjens BT. When death is good for life: considering the positive trajectories of terror management.Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2012 Nov;16(4):303-29 article
Crettaz, Bernard. Café Mortels: Sortir la mort du silence. Labor et Fides (2010) ISBN: 9782830913903