21, 2013, I walked out of my office to find a busy intersection in
lower Manhattan closed to traffic. As I
moved through the crowd of silent onlookers, I managed to catch a glimpse of the trouble:
a motorcycle lying on its side, parts forming a trail back to where it had
skidded, and — nearby — a body covered by a white sheet.
I thought, thoroughly spooked, I guess
this is fitting. I was heading off to an event called Death Café, where I would rap with strangers about mortality
and its discontents for an hour and a half. A friend had sent me a few articles on the "salon" phenomenon, and I was interested in checking out such a quirky, interesting, and possibly constructive idea on my own. It was my first of what would end up being many visits.
Death Café New York City is just one branch of a global "café
mortel" movement, started in 2004 by Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist. Crettaz believes that in order to truly come
to terms with impending death — ours and our loved ones’ — we need to learn to
discuss it freely. His idea went
viral, and Death Cafés were soon being held across the globe. The informal
discussions, often accompanied by tea, morbidly decorated cupcakes, or, in New
York City’s case, Chinese vegetable soup, take place in restaurants, people’s
homes, and sometimes even on boats; recently, there has been talk of opening a
brick-and-mortar establishment in
London, but plans have not solidified just yet.
There is no official governing body for the movement, but the most
common model is the one Jon Underwood, an end-of-life activist, and Sue Barsky
Reid, a psychotherapist, developed on the basis of Crettaz’s original
ideas. The most important aspect to a
Death Café, facilitators believe, is that there is no overarching agenda of any
kind. A loose structure, in other words,
allows for attendees to, perhaps for the first time in their lives, think and
speak freely about the unknown. Consider it more of an intellectual salon than a corporate conference room.
“It’s almost like going to a
language lesson, because [café patrons] are learning to feel comfortable
talking openly about death,” says Nancy Gershman, a memory artist who has been
involved with Death Café New York City since its inception in February 2013. “It doesn’t feel taboo to say the word
‘death’ or ‘dying.’ They can just talk
Even in a world where the concept
of “funeral selfies” exists,
people still shy away from frank discussion about death, particularly in instances
when it affects them directly. And, while more people are
living longer and facing more protracted deaths than ever before, we
still collectively cringe when we find ourselves having to say, 'Sorry for your
Conversation, proponents say, can allow us to face the heavy questions death presents us in a better, healthier way: Would you
like to be kept on life support if declared brain dead? Do you find the idea of an afterlife soothing
or scary? What do you think is the best
way to dispose of a dead body? How do
you feel about physician-assisted suicide? Death
doulas? Atul Gawande? The
death meditation technique? Putting
your ashes into a tree? Even if — as
writer Sophie Elmhirst writes in her Prospect
on the café mortel movement — “death is in vogue,” it’s up to us to use this newfound
broad-mindedness to productive ends, rather than just make it a trending
topic on Instagram.
Everyone has his or her personal reason
for attending Death Café, and if you happen to stop by Hunan Café in Midtown
Manhattan on the third Wednesday of every month, you’ll no doubt hear about
them. The restaurant is a prototypical Manhattan Chinese restaurant: walls flanked with wood paneling, tables covered in maroon-and-white cloth topped with heaping bowls of vegetable soup. On the first evening I went, a waitress rushed by, carrying a can of soda and plate of scallion pancakes, and motioned for me to go upstairs, where the Death Café meets in a slightly quieter, more private space. The two hostesses made me a name tag and told me to join the discussion at a nearby four-top.
At last month's meeting, I met Elad Nehorai, a 30-year-old
Orthodox Jewish blogger from Crown Heights, who had a near-death experience 12
years ago. Recently, he started a site called The Death Projects, where he writes about all aspects of death
and dying. As he sipped his
Heineken, he told us about how he recently interviewed a woman who was struck
by lightning (on the way to her grandfather’s yahrtzeit — or death memorial — no less). Audrey
Pellicano, one of the group’s facilitators, talked about her experience as a
widow (the minister sent to console her days after her husband’s death made a
pass at her) and her subsequent work lecturing bereaved women, including the
widows of Special Ops Forces. Anne, a thin
lady with a Jean Seberg haircut, found out about Death Café through a senior
citizens' social group. She reads
voraciously about death and told us that she’s decided, based on what she
learned from Mary Roach’s book Stiff,
that she’d like to be freeze-dried when her time comes.
“It’s the most environmentally friendly way to get rid of a dead body!” she said. Further research confirms this, though I’d
advise you not to read the description of the process (“a pressure cooker with
Drano,” says one of the developers) if you’ve just eaten.
And, me? Well, I’m human, so death has of course touched me in one way or another, but perhaps the real reason I need to talk about it is because in
my early to mid-20s, I spent nearly three years as a writer’s assistant to
a true-crime author who was suffering from (and eventually died of) Lou
Gehrig’s Disease. It was sort of like Tuesdays With Morrie, if Morrie had been
a sociopath who had harbored dreams of crime stardom as a youngster.
I thought I had learned about the ways of
death before I took the job — a childhood fascination with the morose had
dovetailed nicely into a teenage bout of near-suicidal depression and anorexia — but
in reality, I knew nothing. By the time
I quit, I knew how to operate ventilators, how big to cut pieces of food (there
is a delicate dance to swallowing when you can’t breathe very well), and how to
balance with a wobbly-kneed man clutching my forearm. I’d learned the names of medications, the
requisite — but ultimately pointless — physical therapy regimes, and the most
diplomatic way to fire a home health aide. At the time, I just wanted to go home after work and drink a beer with
my friends and simply not think about it.
Now, of course, those memories come tumbling
out in all sorts of awkward, untimely ways. Death Café, though, gives me a venue in which I can talk about my gothic
nightmares (hint: they involve resurrection) and the guilt I harbor over
wishing, for a long stretch of time, that someone who was in some ways very
close to me would just go ahead and bite the dust already. Leaving Death Café that freezing evening — consoled by other brave souls who can listen to the unspeakable — I found the air suddenly felt a little less chilly.