Lupa Goes to the Death Cafe

Yesterday I attended Portland’s first Death Cafe. No, this wasn’t a group of stereotypical goths moping over Poe and lovely cadavers. Instead, Death Cafes are a new phenomenon, local events in which people meet in a cafe to eat cake, drink tea, and discuss the realities of death. They’re often organized by people whose work revolves around death, such as end-of-life specialists, hospice nurses, and the like. Rather than being a showcase for local funeral services or an evangelizing platform for a particular way of approaching death, Death Cafes are opportunities for people to come together and talk about this rather taboo subject in a safe, confidential and nonjudgmental environment.

Here in the U.S., death isn’t something most people talk about, not unless it’s necessary. That leads to a lot of people feeling unprepared for dealing with it when it happens, and I include myself in that. For all that I surround myself with death–the remains of animals, plants and fungi, none of whose deaths I caused or witnessed myself–there’s still a lot that I don’t understand or accept about it. I haven’t experienced the sudden death of someone very close to me, for example, and though I know how heart-wrenching it can be, I’m not entirely sure how prepared I am for it. Rather than sit in dread, though, I’d rather find out from other people what their experiences have been, and what advice they might have for the day when I go through the same.

And that was one of the key benefits from yesterday’s event. A Death Cafe primarily centers on small group discussion, usually three or four people to a table, all of whom are strangers to one another. Today we started with the topic of what brought each of us to the event, which naturally flowed into other topics over the next hour. Once we all had an idea of where each of the others was coming from, it freed us up to ask about each others’ experiences quite frankly. So I got to ask both a 25-year hospice nurse, and a woman who had recently lost both parents, what they had done and how they had felt when people close to them died, and it gave me a little more perspective. This helped to clear up the mystery just a bit, and while I still don’t at all relish the thought of my loved ones dying, I’m slightly less scared of how to get through those inevitabilities.

I think what surprised me the most about the discussion at our table was the amount of positive conversation that we had. It wasn’t just “Wow, I miss so and so, death is terrible for taking them away” or “I’m really scared of dying”, though those were touched on from time to time. Rather, the theme of our table seemed to be how death is a transformation, not just for the person who dies, obviously, but also for those they leave behind. And it isn’t just a matter of negative transformation, either. I listened to stories of people who journeyed through their own personal underworld in the wake of their loved ones passing, and who came out stronger, even happier and more at peace. They were able to take some of the worst experiences of their lives, and turn them into personal rites of passage that helped them adapt and move on while even more deeply appreciating the memories of those they had lost.

That resilience is incredibly inspiring. I have been through my own challenges–over a decade of daily bullying as a child, divorce, illness, and other low points in my thirty-four years. Yet I’ve managed to come through all of those; I’m still here, and I haven’t given up. And if I got through those things, maybe I can get through others in the future, to include continuing to live and thrive even when someone close to me has died. Plus there are other people who have been there who can offer their perspectives and support. Knowing I wouldn’t be alone is also helpful, and I was grateful to my tablemates for being so open and sharing in this.

We talked mostly about confronting the deaths of others, not so much our own mortality. I spoke of how my own death doesn’t scare me so much any more. While the idea of no longer being here in this amazingly beautiful and complex world is sad and, yes, still scary, knowing that I’m just a tiny part of a big, ever-cycling universe makes it easier to deal with my inevitable death. Any hypotheses about afterlives aside, as far as I can tell I didn’t exist prior to Samhain 1978, and I will cease to exist at some point in the future when my body decides it’s just not going to give a damn any more. But I do know that the molecules that make up my body have been bouncing around this crazy universe of ours for billions of years, and once they cease to be a part of this temporary conglomerate known as “Lupa” they’ll continue on their merry way. I feel better knowing that these tiny things that I touched, however briefly, will be forever changed in their course by having been a part of my life.

Of course, I would wager that if I were to find myself facing a terminal illness I probably wouldn’t be so calm about it as I am now, and I have a certain naivete that those who have been more closely touched by death, or who face it themselves now, lack. But at least for now I don’t have to feel so anxious about someday dying, and I can focus more on being alive right now. And I feel that may be one of the most important things Death Cafes may offer participants. If we can alleviate our fears and anxieties about death, it frees us up to enjoy and appreciate life more fully. Nothing is guaranteed except for the moments we have here in this world; better to make the most of them than to squander them on worrying over what may or may not come next.

If you’re interested in attending a Death Cafe yourself, here’s a list of upcoming ones on the official site. And if there’s not one scheduled for where you are, here’s how you can organize one yourself. There will be more held in Portland and I intend to go back to them; the ongoing conversation is incredibly valuable, and I’d love to see how it evolves.

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10 thoughts on “Lupa Goes to the Death Cafe

  1. What an absolutely fascinating thing! For years I’ve been Greeting the Dead on my own, it being considered a very weird, messed up thing to want to discuss it. Here this sort of thing is covered under the blanket of “therapy” which is more the NHS telling people all the textbook things about coping without allowing people to approach it their own way – not the best way of doing it IMO but at least it’s a start.

    Many of my friends are very ill, some are terminal, others have passed on and everyone approaches death differently; sometimes they pretend it won’t happen, or they seek me out and I make my promise to serve when the time comes. Death needs to be recognised as a part of life, and not just something that happens in funeral homes and is whispered about in a roundabout, stiff-upper-lip way.

    Here’s hoping for the shift!

    • I haven’t done a lot of grief work, but from those of my colleagues who specialize in it, they say a lot of the research points to there being not a lot one can do to make grief go by faster–it’s more about managing it and supporting the person while they go through at their own pace. I think that’s scary for a lot of people, because they want death and the pain with it to just pass by so they can get on with life. The idea that that pain may never go away can cause people to pretend it isn’t there at all, and so when it happens they’re caught unprepared. I hope these Death Cafes help change that.

  2. It’s fascinating that you should write this now (or, rather, that it would be the first thing I read today), because just before setting eyes on this, I responded to a message from a long-time member (a pre-schism continuator!) of the Ekklesia Antinoou, who is Russian, and who is not married and has no children, and wanted to discuss the possibility of someone in the group being her literary and property heir when her eventual death comes. It’s an important discussion, and I encouraged her to take it to the group at large…

    One of the great ironies of our group, I suppose, is that in many respects the cultus of Antinous is a “death cult,” not in the gothic or heavy metal sense (!?!), but in the sense that it wouldn’t have started if someone (i.e. Antinous!) hadn’t died. One of the things we’ve been commended on at PantheaCon by diverse people is that we’re one of the only groups that offers any kind of ritual where people are able to mourn for lost lovers (no matter their gender or sexual orientation), and to simply sit with that sense of loss and mourning, not seeking to resolve it, explain it, or or in any way prevent it. It happens every year we do a ritual (any ritual), and it is always deeply evocative and powerful to see it happen. No matter how much modern pagans and polytheists, as “nature religion” people and as people who acknowledge gods, are okay with death and decay and dissolution in theory, in practice the emphasis gets put on rebirth and regeneration and–dare I say it?!?–resurrection. I always try and make it a point that when Antinous died, he wasn’t reborn, he became a god–and he’s still dead, except insofar that all gods are “living” gods so long as they are worshipped. (That’s a complex set of ideas, but anyway…!) As much as we celebrate Antinous for his beautiful human life, and for his continued divine existence, we are also very much an extended funerary cult for his death, and the death of any number of other individuals (among them victims of LGBTQ&c. violence, suicide, and so forth).

    And, of course, being a seriously ill and disabled individual who has literally died several times, death is never far from my thoughts. When I worry about not having insurance coverage, I’m not worrying needlessly about potential health situations, I’m worrying that I won’t be able to afford the necessary medications to continue living (forget “living in a decent enough condition to be relatively peaceful”!). So, even though it’s not an issue that I address very directly very often, it’s behind a lot of my daily frustrations (that I do talk about quite a lot!), and is never far from my considerations on any matter.

    • I am glad that you’re able to provide that safe space in your rituals; there really aren’t a lot of safe havens for the mourning, especially because grief makes other people so uncomfortable. I really applaud what you’re doing there; in doing that extended funeral for Antinous, you also open it up for people who may not have had finerals, or for their loved ones who were unable to attend for any reason. That’s a really powerful thing.

      I do wish the healthcare situation here was better. In talking to the hospice nurse and the like, I thought a bit about how even in death there’s a hierarchy based on money. Some people get to die in their homes with an in-home nurse; others are stuck in a nursing home and usually die alone. And, of course, the gateway to death is paid as well; how long can we pay for the care we need before the system says “Sorry, you’re out of money, too bad”? In a way, life and death are mitigated by this system, one more reason to overhaul it.

  3. This really hit home with me as well, I have worked in palliative care in nursing homes in the past, and saw first hand how other people had to deal with the death of a loved one. Usually it was a long, drawn out, gradual process, which made my job more difficult being empathic enough to feel the dying grab onto anything out of fear of passing onto the other side.

    I enjoyed how you looked at the prospect of your own death, describing how your atoms or particles would keep existing in various forms is a beautiful image, and one that I envision will be how my own passing happens. Thank you for posting this, I enjoyed reading about your discoveries and what you learned.

  4. In the West, we’ve pretty much sanitised death – how many people do you know, for instance – not counting hospice workers, nurses, funeral/morgue assistants say – who have actual, personal experience of touching dead bodies? Gone are the days when the family would wash & lay out the body of a deceased loved one, and apart from Irish/Catholic families I don’t know anyone who’s attended a wake with an open coffin recently. Dead bodies are whisked away by mortuary assistants into a sterile bag or coffin then dressed up in an antisceptic environment, embalmed, painted until it resembles a waxwork of the person and there’s nothing of them left there at all.

    On the other hand, I’ve encountered death somewhat rather more than the average person. Whilst working for London Underground, I personally witnessed four people die under the wheels of trains (termed a “one-under” in LUL parlance; I probably had a better view than the drivers did). In 2001 I saw a man hit by a van in the street and die right in front of me of a head wound. And I’ve known close, personal loss; in the space of two years a friend died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 28, my grandfather died only 2 months later (was cremated at the same crematorium), my friend Tal died of a heart attack at the age of 36 just 4 months later. Then some months after that my ex-husband’s father-in-law died of a stroke – followed by my ex-husband himself a couple of months later following a motorbike accident at the age of 36, almost exactly a year to the day after Tal had died.

    Up to that point I’d been getting pretty traumatised by all that death surrounding me; looking back I was pretty much in a permanent state of PTSD following that first one-under, but my ex-husband’s death changed pretty much my whole life view – and death view, if you will. It was his death that taught me there is absolutely nothing I cannot live through. I may not *want* to at the time – but I can survive emotionally pretty much anything. And I’m completely unafraid of dying. When my last grandparent – my father’s mother – passed away about 3 years ago, I was completely OK about it in a way I would not have been say, 10-15 years ago.

    My experiences of death have made me a stronger, more together person, I think.

    • I didn’t even see a dead body until I was working as a utility meter reader and had to read one in the basement of a funeral parlor. There was someone laid out for a viewing that evening, and I asked the director if I could take a closer look and just barely touch the body’s skin. Definitely a rather startling thing even as minor an experience as it was in the grand scheme of things.

      I’m glad you’ve come through all this for the better, and I hope I can be as strong as you are when the time comes.

  5. Reblogged this on The Infinite Battle and commented:
    As you may or may not know, I work for Hel, and the topic of death in this country and how it is treated is a massive concern to me (especially the lack of respect the destruction and waste our death practices produce). I therefore love this idea; the fact that there are events for people to come and discuss death and to be open about it. I would love for one to come to my area.

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