Here’s a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon – Death Café.
Officially described as a place where “people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death,” Death Cafés are discussion groups, not support groups or counseling sessions. The Death Café I attend does sometimes meet in a café, but we’ve also met in a community activist space and a co-op dining area. And once we had skull cookies instead of cake. We meet every other month or so. I’m not in charge, I just show up when I can.
Basic rules: What is said in Death Café stays in Death Café, and expect that people are not all in agreement — don’t be a jerk about it.
I knew I was in good company when I attended my first Café last year. I’d been invited by a well-known scholar of Roman sarcophagi, so that was reassuring. And so was the décor people had brought along – a skull-themed tablecloth, a little skeleton that clung to a candle, sugar skulls. When we went around the group to state names and reasons for attendance, I heard my own reason echoed several times: I liked to hang out in cemeteries as a kid, earning me the label “morbid,” and still do today. Other reasons people had for attending: fear of death, academic interest in funerary rites and beliefs about death and the afterlife, green burials…
If you think these discussions are likely to be somber and melancholic affairs, you’d be surprised by how lively they are, and how much laughter they generate. It’s a relief to be able to talk about death, dying, funerals, the possibility of an afterlife, beliefs both shed and held, without being judged, or asked “are you okay?”
Skulls are everywhere these days. I have a sweater, a t-shirt and two tank tops from Walmart, and they aren’t from Halloween displays. You can get coffee mugs with bow-laden skulls at TJ Maxx, you can find sugar skull salt and pepper shakers at Cracker Barrel. You’d think, with this casual embracing of symbols of death, that it wouldn’t be taboo to talk about it.
And yet it seems to be. Start talking about where you want your ashes scattered, or how you’d like to be tree food after death, and people may inquire about your health. Talk about the physical process of dying or a fear of dying or sympathy for a suicide and see how quickly people begin to worry about your mental state, your intentions.
But sometimes these things have to be discussed. Death is something we all face, personally, and as those we know around us die. We don’t all agree about how to mourn or how to treat the dead. We don’t all know, even, what we think about it ourselves. It helps to be able to talk about it, this big thing that might be the end of life or just another stage on the journey.
It’s the nature of Death Café that those in attendance come with open minds and a willingness to hear other points of view. That, too, is refreshing.
Death Café is a social franchise, which means that official events follow the same open-ended, respectful discussion format. There are more than 9,000 recognized Death Café groups in more than 60 countries. You can find out more about Death Café online, including locating one near you. Skull apparel not required.