Yesterday afternoon, I attended the inaugural event for Death Cafe here in Bloomington. Meeting in Room 2B of the Public Library, we laughed at the reference, “to be,” when what we were coming to talk about was “not to be.” Or not? What’s beyond death? Opinions, it turns out, are all over the map.
Myself? I felt exuberant, just walking into that room, knowing that whoever I found there would be a kindred spirit. Just by our presence, we are each signalling that we are at some point in the long developmental process leading out of denial of this culture’s most powerful taboo: DEATH.
The idea is, have coffee, tea, and sweets available — and a donation basket (which quickly filled). No agenda. Just go around the circle, saying whatever we are impulsed to say in that moment about death, dying, our fears, hopes, cares, deaths we have witnessed, those we regret not being present for, various distinctions between “good deaths” and all the others, usually hospital-based. How we’ve forgotten how to die, and so how to truly live! How we’ve lost touch with the cycle of living and dying. How both birth and death used to be part of the family, people came in and they went out inside the home. That both birth and death were natural, part of nature.
There were 25 of us present at this first meeting, most, like me, in the generation that used to be called hippy, and are now growing old. A few very unusual young ones as well. Two people confessed that they almost didn’t come to the meeting, they are so afraid of dying. One of these said she came “to gather information,” and then abruptly shut up. One of the grey-haired men (whom I saw on his bicycle right before) said he’d heard that the best thing to do was to lie in bed with the person who is passing. He said he did that, with his mother, by sitting next to her bed and putting his head on the pillow, facing her.
Several folks talked about awful, prolonged, agonizing deaths that they never want to have to witness again, and that’s what brought them to the meeting. Two people who work with green funerals and burial plots were present as well (there’s actually a new one set up in one section of an old cemetery in Bloomington!).
Several people were there in fresh grief, one whose husband died last month after 13 months of end-stage cancer. Understandably, she had trouble speaking. We leaned in, wanting to “help.” At this point the woman from Indianapolis who came to help Ingrid, the local organizer, start the group, said that we’ve got to remember that Death Cafe itself was not originally visioned as a death-support group. That its purpose is different, in that hopefully by eating and drinking together and allowing anything to come up, we can learn to be conversant with each other on this serious, difficult topic of death and dying — especially our own!
Some people say they aren’t afraid of dying, just of pain; some say they are very afraid, and curious, too. Some say their experiences with others’ deaths have freed them from fear. We talked about “death and taxes” as a possible topic for the group, or perhaps a spin-off from the group. There were, as I knew there would be, lots of folks with whom I’d love to have longer conversations.
The next Death Cafe is April 26, put on by two other local women, who had the idea of starting a local group at the same time Ingrid did. So the three of them have joined forces.
I’m already starting to vision a Green Acres Neighborhood Death Cafe. Hmmmm . . .