‘ I’m gonna die on my way to a Death Café – what an ironic way to go.’
That’s what ran through my head as a security guard sprinted full-speed towards the escalator, darting and dodging between groups of teenagers and families at the Providence Place Mall. Alarms rang out repeatedly, complimented by rhythmically flashing white lights. Occasionally, the alarm would be interrupted by a muffled robotic request for evacuation in the case of a something. The recording was too garbled to make out the rest of the words and too easily overtaken by the alarm. I question the effectiveness of this system.
Despite the alarms, no one seemed to react. There was uncertainty in everyone’s expressions, but the majority of people in the food court kept eating and texting while vendors quietly lowered the doors to their shops. None one made an effort to move – a phenomenon, I assume, that is well documented textbook psychology. I wondered if just a few people running in the opposite direction would be enough to turn this food court into Black Friday at Walmart.
As it turned out, there was an electrical fire on top floor of the mall. This doesn’t actually have anything to do with this story, because despite the emergency, I didn’t die.
However, I will someday. And so will you.
Did that make you shutter? Maybe just made you a little bit uncomfortable, or leave you wondering what’s wrong with me for writing it?
If so, great! Because that’s exactly what I was there for, sitting among of those alarms.
I was waiting to attend my first Death Café.
Discovering Death Cafés
A couple of months back, I was in New York visiting one of my fellow Martians. We walked around the famous Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn.
The cemetery is somewhat of a tourist attraction – complete with an art installation. Graves range from small tombstones to large mausoleums, proving that wealth gaps persist even in the afterlife. Not only could some of these people afford business-class tickets in life, but they also had extra leg room in death as well.
We walked around, admiring the variety of stones and trying to solve puzzles of family drama and ancestry that was hidden underneath ambiguous relationships and overlapping dates.
In one of the cemetery’s entrances was the last thing I would expect– a bulletin board. I didn’t think many events took place in a place that’s so dead (yuck, yuck).
One flier advertised a death café – a place where people meet to discuss death. According to the flier, this was created by Jon Underwood to “increase awareness of death with a view of helping people make the most of their lives.”
At the bottom of the page was my favorite part of the flier which read:
“Tea and light snacks will be provided.”
I read the event details and promised myself I would find a way to go.
My First Cafe
After some quick googling, I found out that there are Death Cafés all over the country, including the alarm-ridden mall I found myself in.
Eventually, the alarms subsided and the firemen left after extinguishing the hidden fire. I walked into the Panera bread which was empty from the earlier evacuation. I stood around awkwardly, a state I have perfected over many years, and scanned the room for a possible host. After a few minutes of waiting, I wondered if it may have been cancelled due to the emergency, or if I would be able to spot the host even if it weren’t. I reassured myself that in these types of odd meet-ups, people make themselves obvious.
I was not wrong.
A young girl walked in and pulled out a stuffed knitted black and white skull and placed it on the table. I recognized it from a picture on the Death Café website.
I approached the host and introduced myself. Her outfit confirmed my suspicions – a suit jacket complimented by a metal skull lapel pin and a skull-filled pocket square. I explained to her that I was glad a previous meeting was cancelled due to the snow storm because I wouldn’t have been able to come otherwise.
“Yeah,” she responded. “The purpose of this is to talk about death, not drive into it.”
I laughed and after a few minutes, we found ourselves at the table with another guest. She began the session the same way she always does:
“Ok, is there anyone with something specific they want to bring up about death?,” she asked.
Death is an interesting subject in American culture. It’s something every living thing on this Earth must face, yet it is taboo to speak about. To speak of death is to be unnecessarily depressing or negative.
That’s not true in every culture.
Many of us here learn about Dia de Los Muertos (The day of the dead), for example, in school, but there are others who have days celebrating and remembering the dead. Some celebrations include dancing, drinking, and eating rather than mourning. This is particularly true for cultures who don’t believe that death is the end.
However, as our Death Café host pointed out, not talking about something doesn’t make it go away. In fact, I would argue, it gives it more power. It breeds more fear, like a name you can’t speak. If we plan and live our lives without ever considering the possibility of death, we’re doomed to miscalculate. If everyone started every Monopoly game with the idea that it would end well for each player involved, they’d be gravely (yuck yuck) mistaken.
And this is what the Death Café is all about – giving people a safe place to speak with others about a topic that’s typically dismissed in their lives as being too negative or uncomfortable.
Truth be told, I personally find death to be terrifying. Perhaps that’s even more of a reason to confront it.
Death and Mac’n’Cheese
I was impressed at the variety of conversations at this event. Death and possibilities of the afterlife or no afterlife at all were all discussed, judgement free, in earnest and intellectual ways. Emotions were shared about how and why we think about death and dying the way we do. I expressed that I often think that our experience with death can really shape the way we view and tackle life.
On this occasion, there were only three people in attendance, so our death talk was sporadic and complimented by personal stories and thoughts that weren’t always related. However, the host recounted a much more intense previous event:
“The entire table was so full, people were pulling up seats,” she explained. She went on to explain how she opened up the floor, as usual, by inviting anyone to bring up a death-related topic of their choice. After a period of silence, a man spoke out. His hands shook as he spoke and told everyone he had a terminal illness. The result, he explained, was that he had only several months to live. He was trying to come to terms with his own life’s end.
This obviously weighed heavily in the air, even when retold second-hand. Then another attendee said, “Yeah. I came in late that day – in the middle of the conversation. I felt pretty awkward.”
It may sound like inappropriately poking fun, but that’s the reality and the beauty of the duality here. The space creates an opportunity to mesh one of the more serious and scary aspects of life with the awkward, clumsy feelings that come along with living it.
We would talk about the possibility of the existence of a soul, and then a bit about Panera’s brick-like mac and cheese. One attendee noted that she was just happy to have an occasion to wear her skull jewelry.
Life is beautiful, brief, strange, and impermanent. No one here ignored that.
The Death Café was a great experience and the event provides a positive place for those who want to discuss any aspect of death with others in a welcoming environment. It’s a respectable endeavor – to work towards fully accepting our existence and to use that to empower us in living our lives the best we can.
And much like life, and thankfully – that mac and cheese, the Death Café also had an end.
I thanked everyone for their time and kindness, and walked to my car, making sure to look both ways before crossing the street.