"My name is Nicola and I’m here because… I’m frightened of dying," I say to the group of strangers sat around the table in front of me. But that’s not what I mean, not really. What I meant to say is that I’m here because I’m frightened of not living – there’s a difference. I’m smiling but my heart is pounding and my palms are sweaty. I’m deeply uncomfortable.
It’s a dark and rainy Bank Holiday Sunday and I’m at my first death café meeting, held at the atmospheric Arnos Vale cemetery in Bristol. Until a few years ago, I shut down any thoughts I had about myself and those I loved dying. I was actively disconnected from death, the truth was too painful a prospect to consider.
But then both of my grandmothers passed away. They were 86 and 79 respectively, one had dementia and heart failure while the other had terminal breast cancer, yet their deaths had come as a huge shock to me. I had so fiercely avoided considering that death was even a possibility – let alone a probability – that I didn’t even say goodbye. I still grapple with this, along with the idea that two women that I had loved so much, who had been so vital in life, could one day just… cease to exist.
The death café, a not-for-profit social franchise, is the brainchild of a British man called Jon Underwood. It was Underwood’s belief that Western society doesn’t 'do' death particularly well. We have a tendency to avoid and ‘outsource’ it, handing over the handling of our loved ones in their final days to doctors, nurses and undertakers.
Inspired by the Swiss Café Mortel movement that aimed to removed the ‘tyrannical secrecy’ out of topic of death, Underwood wanted to create a place where people could drink tea, eat cake and talk about dying. And so, the first death café event was held in 2011 at his kitchen table in Hackney. His mum, Sue Barsky Reid, a psychotherapist, held the meeting. It was a huge success and, together with his mum, Jon wrote a guide to holding your own death café in 2012. There are now death café events held in 65 countries all over the world.
The objective of the death café is to ‘help people make the most of their (finite) lives’ and regain the control over arguably the most significant aspect of being alive. This message is made all the more poignant when I learn that Jon passed away suddenly two years ago, aged just 44.
In my family and friendship circle, we hardly ever broach the subject of death and if we do, it’s with a certain amount of gallows humour. When my mum asked my dad if he would like to be buried or cremated, he suggested she just put him out with the recycling on big bin day. We laughed, and quickly dropped the subject. I still don’t know what his wishes would be at the end of his life. I don’t know what the wishes are for anyone close to me for that matter, not even my own.
While the organisers of the death café carefully stipulate that this isn’t grief or bereavement counselling, everyone has their own personal reasons for attending. Some have lost someone close to them, others have started to think about the end of their own lives and others are simply curious.
My own reasons are that I had reached the age of thirty having never really acknowledging that people die. I mean, I knew, but until that point it remained a fairly abstract idea. When my grandmothers passed away, with their deaths came the realisation that at any point in the near or distant future, my life – along with those of everyone I love – will one day expire. This knowledge can sometimes feel like a crushing weight. Am I making the most of my life? Am I doing enough living?
The meeting is held by a facilitator, but she doesn’t set an agenda. Instead, the twelve of us sit around a table nursing teas and coffees and she allows the conversation to ebb and flow naturally. The strangers gathered are made up of a broad range of ages, genders and ethnicities, and we all hold varying ideas about what death means. Yet the meeting remains respectful, confronting and moving all at once.
I struggle to articulate my feelings around death without getting overcome with emotion. But I listen to the fears, hopes and beliefs of these strangers who share so honestly and freely, and we all laugh when I tell them I worry that if I die unexpectedly that my sons might one day read the half-finished novel lurking on my desktop before I’ve had chance to properly edit it. What if my legacy is just a few crap chapters of a yet-to-be completed book?
My head is still in the meeting long after I get home. I stand in the kitchen and look out at the tree in the middle of the garden. I recently learnt that the previous owners had planted it many years ago to commemorate the birth of their son, but he had sadly passed away. And so, as my own children play in the shadow of the tree that was planted in celebration of a life that has already ended, my mind wanders as it invariably does to this person, this stranger. How can he be dead if he’s alive in my thoughts? How can he cease to exist if those that loved him in life, love him still in death? My grandmothers might have passed away, but I feel them with me every day. To say that they no longer exist is simply not true.
There is still the fear, there is still the existential dread. But after my first meeting –and I plan on attending more – there’s also a renewed urgency to my life. We’re all here for a finite amount of time. Ignoring that fact doesn’t buy you a few extra years. We’re all born and we all die, but it’s the bit in the middle that really counts.