A billion stars go spinning through the night
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.
Recently a friend invited me to participate in a “Death Café” dialogue on zoom. I figured it would be either a morbid experience, or a subversive one in a culture that keeps mortality on the fringes of consciousness until an often-isolated end. Curiosity and timing prompted me to log on. I’m glad I did.
You won’t find a Death Café in the alley behind Starbucks. Though tea and cake are usually served when people meet at someone’s house, and tea is even encouraged when the room is zoom, there is no fixed location. About 6000 Death Cafés have been held worldwide, and physical venues include restaurants (and cafés), a cemetery (for those whose cup of tea is best served with a slice of morbidity), and a yurt (whether in Oregon or Mongolia).
A Swiss sociologist and anthropologist, Bernard Crettaz, organized the first “café mortel” in 2004. Then a UK web developer, Jon Underwood, “developed” the Death Café model in 2011. The idea spread, and Death Cafés have now been held in 66 countries.
What is the purpose of a Death Café? The rather anodyne idea is “to educate and help others become more familiar with the end of life.” More incisively and persuasively in my view, “the official objective of a death café is to help people make the most of their finite lives.”
The web developer Underwood, being English, has made tea and cake an important feature of both physical and virtual Death Cafes, in order “to create a nurturing and supportive environment.”
During the hour and half to two hours of a Death Café, people discuss their perspectives on death, their experiences grappling with their own and loved one’s mortality, as well as their fears and insights.
Needless to say, there are many different ideas about what death means. In the forum in which I participated, the ten women and three men were open with their views without being too attached to them. I found that to be one of the most remarkable features of the dialogue.
I also found, as the literature states, that participating in a conversation that confronts our mortality “revives and an awareness of and appreciation for shared humanity.”
One lady in this Death Cafe, Susan, has pancreatic cancer that had spread to her liver. In an almost jocular manner, she told how that was actually better than cancer in the pancreas alone, which often kills within a few months of diagnosis. She spoke briefly about chemo, and emphasized that she’s still alive after a year, without pain.
“I’m not afraid of death,” Susan said convincingly. You don’t seem to be afraid of disease either, I commented. She replied that cancer can be a gift, since she’s received a great deal of love from friends, adding, “I’ve had the chance to hear lovely things people told me they would have said at my funeral. I don’t want one.”
When we were asked at the end of the hour and half to characterize the conversation in a word or two, I replied that it was surprisingly joyful. However down one is, and I was quite down that day, paradoxically, talking about death increases one’s appreciation and enjoyment of life.
As a philosopher, I did find one of the threads disturbing, even as it was meant to lessen despair over the current state of the world. Janet conflated “planetary death” with natural death, and spoke of “the post doom, no gloom movement,” something I hadn’t heard of before.
It should be self-evident that man’s destructiveness has nothing to do with natural death. Man, a sentient, potentially sapient species, has begun the Sixth Extinction in the entire history of life on earth. That has nothing to do with death, just the destructiveness of the human species.
In short, confronting our individual deaths is a totally different thing than confronting our collective destructiveness as a species. We have to do both, without confusing and conflating the two.
In deeper states of meditation, when the mind is completely silent, the actuality of death draws near, without fear. One emotionally perceives the existential truth that life and death are inextricable. Death is our biggest fear because humans have separated it from life since our distant ancestors first became aware of it.
Does a creature have to separate death from life in order to fear death? Clearly yes. And it’s very doubtful any other animals -- even the brightest animals on earth like orcas, elephants and crows -- have a fear of death. No other animal on earth separatively lives in terms of an illusory ‘me’ that desires permanence.
In the silence of mind, when thought/time ends and the actuality of death draws near without fear, there’s the feeling that awareness existed before the universe, and permeates it. Also, that our awareness persists and rejoins the cosmic awareness, to whatever depth we attain it during our finite lives, after we expire.
If so, death is the infinite ground of creation – of all energy, matter, life and love.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.
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