Speaking of Death …

Posted on July 28, 2022 by Rev. Pam Reidy under death
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Like others, I have been warned against discussing politics and religion. Unfortunately, not speaking about a subject renders one unable to. Our cultural reluctance to discuss religion and politics has produced a generation of people ill-prepared for meaningful conversation about either.  Although not a subject matter we are warned about, death is another taboo topic.  Unwilling to talk about death, we have become unable to.

When I surveyed people about why they thought we are unwilling to talk openly about death the most popular answer I received was: “We are all going to die, and none of us wants to be reminded of that.” Other responses included:

  • “it’s unpleasant”
  • it makes me feel anxious, fearful
  • talking about death reminds me of sad times”
  • “I don’t know what comes after this life and I don’t want to sound dumb”
  • it’s impolite

Whatever the reason for our hesitancy to talk openly about death, we have become ill-prepared to face the inevitable, whether it is our own death or that of someone we love.

Some people are trying to change this and they aren’t from the funeral care industry.  They are individuals who take part in Death Cafés. Put simply, a death café is a gathering of people to discuss death.  It is typically held in a café with coffee and refreshments, there is no structured format or listed topic, it is meant to be a safe, comfortable environment for people to talk about death. It is not a bereavement or support group and the guidelines are clear that it is not an opportunity to promote a specific ideology or product.  (https://deathcafe.com)

The current practice of the Death Café came from Jon Underwood who held the first death café in his London home eleven years ago. Underwood got the idea from Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Dr. Bernard Crettaz, who organized the first café mortel in 2004.  Believing that “we have lost control of one of the most significant events we will ever have to face,” Underwood joined forces with his psychotherapist mother, Susan Barsky Reid and launched the Death Café website. From there the movement spread quickly. The Death Cafe website created by Underwood states their purpose: “At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death.” Our objective is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’

As of March 2018 over 5,000 death café gatherings had taken place worldwide. Lizzy Miles, a hospice worker in Ohio, held the first USA death café in 2012.  In 66 countries, facilitators have provided a safe, positive environment for average people to discuss their ideas, thoughts, dreams, and fears of death and dying. Without leading attendees to “any conclusion, product, or course of action,” conversations focus only on the topics related to death and dying that participants choose. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_Cafe)

As a lifelong educator I realize open conversation gives learners the opportunity to consider a myriad ways of viewing a topic. I fully support taking death talk out of the closet and helping people develop competence in speaking of death and dying. I am not promoting the Death Café as the favored method for doing this but I applaud their efforts and hope we see similar attempts to support people in becoming competent in speaking of death.

For more information about Death Café visit: https://deathcafe.com/

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