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Tea and Mortality

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 lost.

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.