Updated: Aug 10
“If you are reading this, that means that you are not too late to the conversation—the conversation about Death. And it is not too soon to join in.”
Last week I was invited by Elizabeth Gill Lui (who originally authored the main part of this article for the PRS journal ) to host the Death Café at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Feliz. PRS - is a famous denizen of “The Secret Teachings of All Ages” and books on Tarot and the Astrology of the Psyche, and the life and thoughts of Manly P. Hall. It’s a wonderful 1920’s building with a certain air of the occult and the strange, and it has become a recent gathering place for the Death Café. As Elizabeth says - and I quote here, “If you are reading this, that means that you are not too late to the conversation— the conversation about Death. And it is not too soon to join in."
She continues to say "The reality is this – our culture supports a perpetual state of denial as it relates to death and our blinding inability to be moved by its distortion effect on our psyches. Those effects not only dehumanize us, but force death to rear its ugly head in the least desirable of places, remaining unchecked. So pervasive is death, we seek protection by numbing ourselves to its immediacy. From the macro to the micro, it is not surprising that we can hardly attend to our personal experiences of death with any sense of forethought or intimacy.
Why are we still struggling to talk about death in a helpful way?
As we recently saw during the Covid Pandemic, Americans and honestly the world exhibited a shocking lack of unanimity on finding a common cause against the virus that would kill over 6 million people worldwide. Why are we so divided in our response to death? We struggle to register that over 150 species go extinct every 24 hours, and as William DeBuys wrote, ‘the planet is on life support, and at best is in the last stage of hospice when all that remains possible is ‘care, not cure.’ So why are we still struggling to talk about death in a helpful way.
Conscious dying and the Death Positive Movement
Many people are familiar with the role of midwives and birth doulas at the bedside of newborns, but not as many know about the practice of Death Doulas in the world of palliative and hospice care for the dying. As expressed poignantly by INELDA, the International End-of-Life Doula Association— It’s time to care for the dying and those close to them with compassionate engagement and open-hearted presence. It’s time to remember and incorporate the traditions of our ancestors, the inner healing and beauty that can be experienced between people surrounding the dying person. It’s time for us to embrace ‘a more enlightened’ approach to care.
Like Birth, Death is not a medical event. Dying often is, but Death is not. Both are definitively human and provide the bookends to our lives. As the movement in conscious dying has evolved into what is now termed the Death-Positive movement, many are advocating for supportive ways we can shepherd the dying through the universal experience of what is, one’s final living act. Central to this awareness is that we need more openness in discussing loss, death, and grief, and in that unfolding conversation, our culture might begin to find compassionate ways to approach the inevitability of this life event. For individuals, the hope is to provide a better way of planning for, and accepting, our own deaths. And in helping friends and family navigate the options for end-of-life care, more openness will benefit both the caregivers and the dying. “
There are concrete resources for things that we all glimpse in our peripheral vision, but avoid attending to like: Living Wills, Advance Care Directives, DNR orders, Medical-Assisted-Aid-in-Dying legislation and resources, and newly developed green burial options including Human Composting (NOR) and Aquamation. (look to next weeks article on that.) At some point on this path one is likely to stumble across The Death Cafe with its ‘objective to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives."
The Death Cafe: Tea and Legacy
What on earth happens at a Death Café – I hear you ask – people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, (or scones if your host happens to be British and has a penchant for making them,) drink tea, and discuss death. The host really is no more than the moderator of a space that responds to a deep cultural longing. The level of participation in this transformative communal experiment speaks volumes. It is a safe space for the emotional power of compelling stories and while raising awareness and inspiring action around death, dying, and conscious living.
Last Thursday I asked everyone to introduce themselves and say a little about why they were there. There were young and old, some in the immediate grief of loss, others had existential curiosity about the nature of death, a young woman was interested in becoming a death doula and was currently looking for the body of a homeless woman she was working with and came to the Café to wonder and share her thoughts about what to do with her cremains if she claimed them. I proposed the question about what it meant to leave a legacy, and each took their turn describing how legacy felt, and how it showed up in a death they had experienced and consequently shaped their perspective on their life. Together the conversations swelled and fell away washing the collective consciousness, was legacy a weight to burden others with upholding, was it a way to leave the world a better place, was it a ritual dance to celebrate your life? What each of us knew was the realization that by paying more attention to our relationship with death, even perhaps extending ourselves so that we might befriend it, and embrace its life-affirming fullness we might see its natural beauty. Socializing grief in communally supportive environments like the death café helps us feel heard, seen,Death and validated. Death and the conversations around it belong in a public and social space within the community as it's something every single human on the planet will experience.