The way that we in some western societies regard death is a fairly recent sociological development. Death used to be ever-present; a tangible reality of life. Not so very long ago, infant mortality in the most technologically developed nations was at levels only seen today in those parts of the world where health care is almost entirely absent. Family elders usually died at home with their families, the homeless died on the street; millions went to war never to return. Despite the dramatic and sensational images assailing us through our computers and TV screens, death is today, very much outside of our regular experience.
It’s fair to say that as healthy human beings, few of us would welcome death or look forward to it – indeed, for an otherwise healthy person to seek death tends to be a one of the acknowledged markers for mental illness. As living, sentient beings with the abilities to make intellectual sense of mortality, we are nevertheless instinctively programmed for survival. Death is the ultimate enemy – and that make some sense on many levels.
Our fastidious disassociation from death, however, is a modern phenomenon. In our modern society, we are insulated from it, removed physically and emotionally from it, and it tends to be an issue that’s compartmentalized as something only to be faced when there is absolutely no choice but to do so. People go to special buildings to die, we have special places for the bodies to lie before we dispose of them underground or burn them to ashes. People who deal with death on our behalf are often considered unusual or even rather strange – death is icky and nasty and we tend to not want to have anything to do with it. The result is that – my childhood and younger adult self included – as a society in the west in particular, we have become somewhat terrified of the notion of death. Death is not just the enemy; it is the monster of which we should not even speak; the name that we should not mention.
Death Café is a movement (in a very non-threatening sense) which seeks to promote the idea that it doesn’t really have to be this way.
Fear, after all tends to be something which limits the human experience – especially when the fear is of something intangible, or the fear itself is less than useful (i.e. doesn’t protect us). I’m not talking now about the (very sensible, in my opinion!) fear that prevents us from choosing to walk along an impossibly narrow ledge above a precipice, or the fear that prevents us from driving at 200km/h along city streets – such instincts patently make sense in survival terms. Our fear of the concept of death itself is the less than useful concept that has taken hold in so many of our societies.
There is - despite hundreds of formerly rich people currently preserved in liquid nitrogen who hoped differently - no way to cheat death. I don’t believe that we will ever find a way to do so – unless, of course, some of the science fiction writers have it right, and one day in the incredibly distant future (having not in the meantime been the architects of our own extinction) we evolve into non-corporeal beings. Somehow, though, I doubt it – it sounds like wishful thinking; a pleasant dream perhaps, but overly fanciful. The end of life is therefore inescapable; it is an intrinsic part of being alive. As emotional, intelligent and complex organisms we naturally wish to survive and (I hope!) enjoy our lives. Reaching an emotional point where this is no longer true is usually a long and painful journey – as a species, we don’t take the concept of ending our own lives lightly. We do not easily welcome the end.
The end, however, comes to everyone, and denying this most absolute of all truths is itself an irrational strategy. By denying it we have no effect upon it; by emotionally hiding from it we have a similar total lack of impact upon its inevitability. By stigmatizing it as the monster, I believe we miss chances to learn about how to live – and this, for me, is the revelation behind Death Café. I am learning to appreciate more about my life, and what death means to me – my own eventual end and the ends of those I love. I am learning that I have been overlooking what the finality of death reminds us of; living for each day.
Each of us will of course have different lessons to learn, but perhaps the theme will prove to be fairly constant. In my case I am learning to be more openly ME, to not hide my self from other people; to take the risk of not being liked by everyone I meet, to risk being mistaken, and to therefore be honest about my opinions. I’ve been writing about my life for the sake of my descendants; I do not want to be a mystery to my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I know so little of what my ancestors learned about life and I fervently wish that I knew a great deal more. Looking at death with this perspective has released me from the torpor I used to occupy; I’m going to die one day, and so waiting grimly for it to find me makes no sense – I’d much rather it was a surprise.
Death is about life, in a way. Death is the underscore beneath our legacies; it makes our legacies actual (a legacy only becomes a legacy after we’ve gone) and turns us into memories in the minds of our loved ones and descendants. Death Café reminds me that I want my memory to be a balance; I’d like to be remembered with a smile, a laugh and the thought that what you saw was what you got. I hope that I will be missed – I’m selfish that way, I guess – but that after the pain has faded, my picture on the mantelpiece will provoke a fond memory, or a remembered lesson (I’m trying to pass on what I’ve learned from my own mistakes!).
I am inspired by the people I have so far met through this group – ordinary people who are anything but ordinary; people who have found a chink in the armour that used to surround death, and are tweaking its nose playfully. In conversations about death there exists the enormous paradox that the room fills with enthusiasm for life and an increased awareness of the possibilities to enjoy our moments through the looking glass of our simple, truthful mortality. We are all, after all, balanced upon the edge of our personal end. We are all but one breath away from it.
The choice we are faced with is to focus upon the balancing act itself, or to instead enjoy the journey along the tightrope as much as possible. Some of us walk and some of us run; some do gymnastics and some ride a unicycle dressed as a clown and playing a sousaphone. Those of us who stop and think only of staying on the rope are missing out on the journey.