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The Drum

Death Café: a social approach to the big sleep

Final Fling, the group which “aims to be to death what Mumsnet is to birth” took the unusual step of hosting a 'Death Café' event to market and promote its services. Final Fling describe the cafés as “an informal group discussion over a cuppa”. The group is supported to talk about how their life experience informs their view of death and how their experience of death shapes their life. 25 Death Cafes have been held in six countries so far. Maureen O’Brien, an Australian nurse who recently lost her father, went along to take on one of the last great social taboos.

The final destination

I’ve spent most of my career as a nurse and midwife, watching life come, watching life go and wading somewhere in the waters in between. After nursing my dad until his death at home, I couldn’t stop thinking about death and dying. My preoccupation is not fear driven, unlike Montaigne, who thought dwelling on your death every day would make you so used to it that when death finally happened you wouldn’t be scared.

My fascination is more to do with how death is in us from birth, yet we are surprised, ill-prepared and resistant when it makes itself known. Death’s inevitability in life, and our denial of this, intrigues me.

The focus for Scotland’s first Death Café was to be on objects. I imagined participants using their objects as a portal to a conversation about death and dying. I was keen to know why some things become precious to people when they are grieving and not others. It had crossed my mind that objects assist us with emotions, that we may even imbue them with transformative powers. What if the opposite was true: that it is us who are imbued and transformed by the objects? I wanted to know what others thought about this.

The opportunity to meet a group of strangers in the Glad Cafe in Glasgow, Scotland, to talk about life, death and objects was just too good to miss. I wanted to know what sort of conversations about death might arise, in the former murder capital of Europe, compared to those arising in the lucky country where I live.

I was excited when participants were asked to bring along an object or photo that had relevance to us when we think about life and death. What to bring? I see death everywhere and in everything.

In A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir wrote, ‘everyone knows the power of things: life is solidified in them, more immediately present than in any one of its instants’. I imagined solidified stories being released from the confines of photos, jewellery, clothing, tools, and maybe even toys.

I spent weeks thinking about what to bring and settled on a brown, leather pouch. The leather was old, dry, neglected. It had one clip to hold it together and fell open easily. It belonged to my dad and contained a cast he’d made for fly fishing. Its meaning and relevance to him was now ready to be built upon and transformed in this new context where trout are not even on the menu. In the pouch, trout flies cling on to fishing line as if for their own dear life. No matter how they cling, they are not alive and so cannot die.

Huddled at the back of the Glad Cafe, twelve souls gathered around a table to meet our hosts, Barbara and Erin. They are from Final Fling, the spirited, pragmatic home of end-of-life planning. I immediately had to let go of my disappointment when they told us that we wouldn’t be working with our objects due to time constraints. How often my attachment to an object or agenda causes me suffering in life. A great lesson in letting go before we even start. I let go of wondering how objects might transform identity, relationships, emotions and possibly time itself in relation to death, dying and grief. It is with reluctance that I cast my thoughts in a different direction.

The table was buzzing with excitement and enthusiasm, spurred on by the outstanding carrot cake. The only male at the table was relaxed with us women and also with death, at least as a conversation topic. Talking about death, it seems, is women’s business. Dying, however, is everyone’s.

During the Death Café, we wrote our thoughts about death and dying onto post it notes, shared them with the group and stuck them onto butcher’s paper. Post-it notes and butcher’s paper are as inevitable in workshops, it seems, as death is in hospitals.

As each speaker shared their chosen words there was nodding and lively discussion. ‘Ready, acceptance, release dirt, rest, home, stories, humour, loss’ and on it went. Simple words, yet hopelessly inadequate for what they were attempting to relate.

Our group was enthusiastically loud which was good, because so was everyone else in the café, making it hard to hear. The allotted time flew past and before we knew it a band was starting to set up. I didn’t find out if they did covers of My Way or The Wind Beneath My Wings the most popular send-off songs in Scotland.

To end the session, and to shift the focus from death to life, we were invited to write letters to ourselves and leave them with our hosts to post to us at a later date. As I read mine now, I am reminded that I promised to make an advance care directive so that I can live well and to follow my dreams without attachment.

No matter how far away from home, contemplating death, for me is simply an attempt to find that road home that each of us must take. As I sat with those strangers, me wondering how they can endure such long winters, them wondering what it is like to live in never ending, sunny, summers, we all understood that whatever the weather, wherever we are, we will all die. Even in the lucky country, death will find us.

They laughed as we walked into the rain, “welcome to Glasgow’s very own fifty shades of grey”. I’d managed well to cast my line in a different direction that night. There is something mysterious in casting a fly and waiting until it sinks into unknown water beneath the surface. Fishermen cannot see trout in deep water and hope not to be seen by them. And yet, when fish strike it is always unexpected. Such is death.

Maureen O’Brien is a registered nurse and midwife, working both in palliative care in a hospice in Canberra, and teaching on pregnancy, birth and parenting in high schools and youth groups.

Death image via Shutterstock