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alex beam

Talk about death, hold the sugar

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It does sound a bit intimidating: Meet me in the Death Café.

There is indeed a Death Café movement. Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz had the idea for informal discussion groups about death 14 years ago, he said in a 2010 interview recorded, of course, in a café. “I come from a mountain background, where people start talking about death when they are just little children,” he said. “I wanted to reproduce that — but where? I’d prefer a public square, but then someone suggested the café. It was a place where people shared intimacies, but in a relaxed way.”

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British web developer Jon Underwood read a newspaper article about Crettaz’s “Café Mortels” and launched Death Cafés in the United Kingdom in 2011. The gatherings resemble the slightly better-known Philosophy Cafés, where strangers meet to tease out subjects such as “Is Atheism Just a Value Judgment?” — last month’s topic at Cambridge’s Harvard Book Store.

In the Death Café, of course, you talk about death.

The first American Death Café met in Columbus, Ohio, a year ago, and over a hundred have assembled since then in cities such as Seattle, New York, Baltimore, and Bangor. “Currently most of the people who are organizing Death Cafés are in the US,” Underwood told me via e-mail, “and our most far-reaching media coverage has been there. However they are spreading far and wide, such as New Zealand and Taipei. The most consistent factor is that most of our organizers and attendees are women.”

Technology allows you to hold a 90-minute Café meet-up online, and I attended one using a video conferencing program called Go To Meeting. Six of us showed up, representing the United States, New Zealand, Britain, and Scandinavia.

Here is what the Death Café isn’t; it’s not a support group for men and women who are grieving, although it probably functions that way for some people. Our meet-up was generally cerebral. People asked each other questions about death, with the answers wandering all over the lot. Two of us were older, including me; four were women; and everyone had seen death up-close, and had something to say about it.

One man had recently lost his fiancée and said, startlingly, that “she gave me an enormous gift in her death. I’m aware that could sound pretty weird to a lot of people. How could I be grateful for her death? Yet it’s true, it’s brought enormous blessings into my life.” One woman had attended the trial of a mass murderer, and came away surprised by her own indifference to others’ loss of life. What’s that quote often attributed to Joseph Stalin? “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”

Most of us had seen corpses of loved ones, and we started to talk about communicating with the dead. I have always remembered stories of Mary Todd Lincoln attempting to communicate with her dead son Willie from the White House, stories generally mocked by historians, and eagerly spread by the family’s detractors to “prove” that Mrs. Lincoln was batty. More recently, I’ve come to understand her loss, and what she was trying to do for recompense.

Several of us had tried to communicate with the dead. One woman wrote a letter to a deceased boyfriend “and put it in his coffin. I felt so desperate to connect with him in some way. I don’t think it was very successful for me.” A woman in New Zealand kept hoping to receive one last letter from a dead friend. “I kept hoping that perhaps New Zealand Post will have made a terrible mistake,” she said. “Unfortunately, the post office isn’t that bad.”

One reason people visit cemeteries is to hold conversations with the dead. I’ve spoken to both my dead parents in recent years, and, no, I haven’t received messages back. “Responses in the other direction” are few and far between, one of my fellow Death Café-istas remarked sardonically.

Was the experience worthwhile? Absolutely. At least we weren’t talking about suburban real estate prices, Baby Boomers’ endless litany of health “concerns,” or who’s going to buy the Globe. Those subjects, it is fair to say, bore me to death.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.
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