You usually go to a café for a cup of tea and a bite to eat.
A couple in east London have recently been offering customers much to more to
chew on. Allistair Anderson and Hasina Zaman have been running “death cafés”,
where they invite people to discuss a big question in everyday surroundings.
The question is: “How do you want to die?” The death cafés
are part of a nation-wide campaign seeking people to think about and discuss
death, dying and bereavement. These are very important topics, but they often frighten
and disturb people. We turn away from them, but whether or not we discuss them,
one day they will enter our own lives. And if we don’t discuss and prepare for
them, they can take a far bigger toll on our emotions than we expect or want.
Of course, we expect to feel grief when we lose a loved one,
but if our reaction harms our ability to deal with the situation, we can end up
feeling very guilty. We can feel that we have let people down, including – or
especially – the person we’ve lost. What if the funeral doesn’t go according to
plan? What we make arrangements that seem satisfactory at the time, but look
wrong with hindsight?
If bereavement is a new experience, we sometimes have no
idea beforehand how we will cope. Death cafés and other opportunities to talk
about death are an attempt to prepare people for the inevitable losses they
will face. Allistair Anderson and Hasina Zaman want to provide coping skills
and strategies that will ease the journey through some of the most difficult
times anyone will face.
But that’s only part of the story. Preparing for the death
of someone else is one thing. What about preparing for your own death? At one
time it was impossible to avoid the question of personal mortality. A hundred
years ago Britain was half-way through the First World War. Young men were
dying in huge numbers every day overseas. Back home, disease and accidents were
still claiming the lives of many children. Funerals were common, families and
communities more closely knit, so attending a burial or cremation was a more
routine event in people’s lives.
A hundred years on, life expectancy has risen and young
people don’t encounter death at every turn, especially not among their own
age-group. It’s become easier for us to avoid the topic and close our minds to
the question of our own deaths. But we don’t help either ourselves or those
close to us when we turn away from something that, whether we like it or not,
is moving closer by the day. When we face our fears, we may find that they
don’t loom so large after all.
And we may find something unexpected: that a “good death”
isn’t the contradiction that it might first appear. It’s an old idea, something
that people once regularly asked for in their prayers. They wanted to pass away
in a calm and dignified way, without great pain and suffering, and they wanted
their friends and relatives to mourn in the same way, passing naturally through
grief and returning to everyday life with happy memories of the person they had
It’s impossible to guarantee a good death, but discussing
death now is one way to increase the chance of having one ourselves or helping
a friend or relative to do so. Death cafés are part of a campaign to encourage
exactly that: a conversation in ordinary surroundings about extraordinary
experiences. We only die once, and death doesn’t have to be a wholly negative
and painful event.