The flyer had been irresistible.
Its design was minimal, a black-and-yellow color scheme interrupted only by the faint image of a coffee cup beneath the stark words: “Death Café.” Hung on the Slant Walk cork board, tucked in among roommate requests, promotional signs for on-campus events and brochures advertising tutoring services, the flyer offered scant information — just a time and place, an invitation to “join us for refreshments and an engaging conversation about the end of life” and a disclaimer that the event was not recommended for those who have suffered a recent loss.
I was sold.
I wouldn’t say that I’m fascinated by death, at least not any more than the average person. But I’d be lying if I said that I don’t think about it on a daily basis. There’s something so intriguing about the unifying unknown — the one thing we’re all headed toward even if nobody knows what it entails until they get there. Even more intriguing is the fact that the vast majority of us don’t get to choose when it happens, that there’s often no rhyme or reason to it. Many murderers live to see 90, and some of the most kindred souls in the world get cut down in the primes of their lives. Death picks and chooses with reckless abandon, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Eventually, we have to submit to that unknown.
So no, I’m not fascinated, per se, more just curious. It’s, quite literally, a morbid curiosity.
I arrived at the café promptly at 6 p.m. and was greeted with smiles and provided with a “Hello, my name is…” nametag. Members of Sigma Phi Omega, the gerontology honors society, were stationed around the room, directing me to the corner where a refreshment table offered fresh coffee, sprinkle-laden cupcakes and a bowl of leftover Easter candy. I poured a steaming cup of joe, grabbed a cupcake (normally I prefer vanilla, but the darkness of the chocolate somehow seemed more appropriate) and took a seat. Roughly 30 people were in attendance, spread out among five circular tables.
The ambiance was quiet and comfortable. Silky soft rock slinked out of the speaker in the back, coating the room with the sounds of Mumford and Sons, the Head and the Heart and Bon Iver. Casually dressed attendees sipped their coffee and made small talk as we waited to get started. A kid at the table next to mine had brought a styrofoam carry-out box from Skyline and began picking at his unfinished coneys.
When it was time to begin, the organizers welcomed us all and gave a brief introduction to the global death café movement. Started in 2011 by a British man named Jon Underwood, the meetings offer a space for people to eat cake, drink tea and discuss the finality of life. There is little direction and no judgment; rather, the death café is an act of normalization, an effort to encourage people to talk openly about a subject often seen as taboo. As Underwood saw it, death is, understandably, something that can be uncomfortable to discuss. But like anything, the more you talk and openly express your feelings about it, the healthier your attitude toward it becomes.
And if you can enjoy some sweets while you’re at it, it just makes it that much more comforting.
The organizers gave us a prompt to break the ice, but to be completely honest I don’t remember what it was — once the conversation was opened, there were few lulls over the 90 minutes that followed. It was like a purge. All of these thoughts and ideas and anxieties we’d all harbored internally for years came cascading out of us.
At my table sat three students, one Miami administrator and two older citizens, and our discussion touched on a wide range of topics — from the fear of flying, to the decision of what to do with our bodies after we die, to suicide, to the end-of-life preparations we all have to make, to depression, to grief, to what we would do if diagnosed with a terminal illness.
One woman expressed her terrible fear of an absurd death — it would make sense to perish in a car crash, she said, but who thinks about dying when they go to get a snack out of a vending machine (more common than shark-attack fatalities), or when they’re at an ATM in Anchorage, Alaska, and get mauled by a moose? (I figured that one had to have been inspired by a true story.)
Another woman shocked me with the candor with which she explained her readiness to die. She wasn’t suicidal; but she had no current spouse, her children had both grown up and she simply was ready to move on to whatever was next. She wasn’t going to seek death out, but she would welcome it when it came.
The conversations were heavy, to be sure. But they never felt heavy. No tears were shed, and we actually spent the majority of the time laughing, feeling free to let loose and crack morbid jokes throughout the evening.
As its website notes, the Death Café movement aims to raise “end-of-life awareness.” At first I had found that silly — aren’t we all aware? But as the evening wore on, I started to understand it more. We were talking about death, but the conversation allowed us to think more critically and creatively about life.
I walked out of the café at 7:30, feeling refreshed, relaxed and a little more appreciative of the world around me. When I got home, I looked up the founder Jon Underwood to learn a little more about him, and I found that he passed away last June at the age of 44. His death was sudden and unexpected, caused by a brain hemorrhage from undiagnosed leukemia.
I was disappointed, but not sad. I’m sure he, of all people, had made peace with the inevitability of death before it took him into the great beyond, whatever that may be.
For more info on the movement, or to find a meeting near you, go to the Death Café website at http://deathcafe.com.