The Death Cafe

— Janice Turner (link)

My father died in the early hours and when his care home called to tell me, they asked about “arrangements”. Only then did I realise we hadn’t made any. Could he stay just a few more hours while I consulted my mother? (I didn’t wish to wake her yet, 200 miles away and alone.) No, his body must go, right now.

It is the protocol of many homes to whip away the deceased. Undertakers remove the dead discreetly by the back door. It is thought better that the old don’t ponder bleakly upon mortality, witness their own inevitable fate. So the next day they just see Maisie’s empty place at breakfast, pass her room being cleared. We blinker horses to keep them calm.

Death regrets: I have a few. Not things left unsaid. (Much is covered by “I love you”.) But failing to face the inevitable; not making plans. He was terminally ill, for God’s sake. Why did I not probe to find out exactly how long he had, so he didn’t die alone? The last days are hard to predict, I was told. But I was scared, squeamish, didn’t press to know more.

I’d carried these thoughts around unspoken for five years, until on Wednesday I attended a “death café”. This is not some sinister gothic coffee shop but a group of strangers gathering to address the subject we find hardest to discuss. (There is cake, which helps.) And death, it quickly transpired, is not a single issue but a field almost as rich as life itself.

… The death café movement was founded by Jon Underwood, who died this year aged 44. He pursued the mission of the Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz to liberate death from “tyrannical secrecy”. Underwood believed that our anxieties, depression and addictions are fuelled by refusing to confront our most basic fear. He organised death cafés in music festivals, offices, front rooms. Some attendees are young people for whom death seems wholly hypothetical, others are old or sick, looking for solace and truth. “Death denial,” he said, “is the energy that drives the motor of consumer capitalism.” Stay calm, go shopping, carry on.

… Our whole society is death avoidant. Most of us will die in hospitals, not at home. I’ve never seen a corpse. My family believed children shouldn’t attend funerals, so when both my grandmothers died I stayed home helping northern matrons to butter ham rolls. Now there is a trend for funerals without the dead: unattended “direct cremations” followed by a broader celebration of a life. Some people, such as the author Anita Brookner and David Bowie, insisted upon no funeral at all. As if a loved one just disappears. It is the very opposite of Indians by the Ganges throwing sandalwood upon a pyre.”

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