No, no skulls in a brown paper bag or zombie food in an insulated box. Nothing morbid.
Morbid. That’s the word I ran into, again and again, when I said I was going to my first Death Cafe. ‘Morbid’, said my mum and daughter and the man at the underground sweetie shop. Underground as in Tube: nothing morbid.
It’s possible I might not have picked up on the idea of an event where people meet to eat cake and talk about death, had it not been for my dad dying. I found myself reading more about death online and went to the first #DeathSalonUK (attracted by the idea of intellectuals gathering, I admit.) I read about Dying Matters’ Awareness Week, well underway this week with stacks of impressive national print, broadcast and online coverage.
Raising the subject of death has invariably met with a shudder and a desire to change the subject among most people I know, in case they catch it or something. Now there’s the feel of something of a cultural shift, where there is more openness in acknowledging death. I’m sure there’s plenty of research into whether it’s the case but I think so (QED.) Huge hat tip to whoever came up with #YODO, by the way: You Only Die Once. Inspired.
So, I decided to go to Cafe Rouge at Hampstead on Monday. There’s a cultural shift for a start, when you live in Stepney. Rather a dearth of fried chicken and sari shops in Hampstead. Cute coffee bars and designer clothes shops and sunshine combined to help my cheerful mood but I know that having my mind on death honestly contributed.
I fairly skipped along, in a ‘Hello, busker! Hello, prep school kids! I’m alive!’ cross between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Fotherington-Thomas from the sublime Molesworth books.
The upstairs room was packed, mainly with women of all ages. There were large tables and smaller ones: I chose a table for four and am glad I did. We started talking almost straight away, before organiser Josefine Speyer rang her little bell to say this was the first anniversary of Death Cafe at that venue. She explained there was no agenda for discussion and that each table had a facilitator, who each identified her- or himself.
With growing interest in Death Cafes, there were a number of journalists present, Josefine said. I wondered if it might be like the mythical Ku Klux Klan meeting, where every sheet hid an undercover reporter, but they all stood up and said they’d be happy to speak to anyone who wanted to afterwards. Anyone who didn’t want to be photographed could also stay off camera.
My table had a journalist, who was frank, charming and made a real contribution to the discussion. We four talked families and funerals and how we did NOT want to die (in pain and without any capacity for choice.) One woman was wonderfully pragmatic; her instructions for conveying her to the Dignitas clinic are in a cupboard but I’m not telling you which one.
We laughed quite a lot. After about an hour and a quarter, which sped by, there was a general session to offer views. One man thought the waiters were obtrusive. ‘Antonio? Never!’ cried everyone else.
My own happy highlight was nervously raising my plan for Dad’s ashes next month, which my table liked. Relief. They’ve been at the undertaker’s since January and I haven’t been able to raise the subject with Mum. This week gave me the impetus to do so. He adored watching the Red Arrows and never missed a display: when they fly over at Folkestone Air Show next month, we’ll be near the cliffs and he can join the coloured smoke trail in the air.
Dying matters. Let’s talk about it.