It’s the strangest Zoom I’ve been on since the pandemic began. Everyone’s video is on, no one shows up late, and there’s a comfortable three-minute silence. There are no virtual backgrounds among the group of eight, so I see into people’s homes: an afghan folded neatly over a couch, a well-organized bookshelf, a cozy-looking overstuffed chair. Many people laugh, some cry. They talk about everything from difficult relatives to favorite movies to sun signs.
I’ve never felt this alive, and I’m in a Death Café.
The idea behind a Death Café is simple — anyone is welcome to come talk about life’s most taboo subject. Jon Underwood began the Death Café movement in the United Kingdom in 2011. He was inspired by the work of Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist who created the concept of a Café Mortel. Underwood died unexpectedly in 2017 at the age of 44 from undiagnosed leukemia, but the movement he began lives on and has spread across the world. You can find Death Cafés from Lagos to Buenos Aires, from Kiev to Albuquerque.
In pandemic times, the cafés, which had existed both in real life and online, went entirely virtual. The all-online incarnation means that some groups meet more frequently. One Bay Area chapter, for example, has shifted from meeting quarterly to meeting weekly. People Zoom in from their homes or offices, no longer restricted by geography. The format is simple. A facilitator asks everyone to introduce themselves, and the floor is open for sharing. It is a space for discussion, not counseling or advice, and there is no requirement to speak. Participants range in age from those who might soon be facing death to the middle-aged to the young adult.
One woman I meet over Zoom calls her love of Death Cafés “an addiction,” explaining that she arranges her whole schedule around them so she can attend five days a week. Others note that they never would have met otherwise but are now like family. There are a lot of “I love yous,” a lot of appreciation and kindness. People hold each other’s gazes through a screen, their eyes open and honest.
I’ve been to three Death Cafés in four days, and I’m starting to understand the whole addiction thing. Maybe bringing death into the room — with others there to support you — is the surest way to feel alive. Perhaps this is the unsung gift a plague year has given us: Death is now always in the air.
“COVID has brought death into our living rooms,” says Jim Kirkpatrick, a long-time Death Café participant, “just like the Vietnam War.” Kirkpatrick, who has attended as many as two or three Death Cafés a day, shows up three or four times a week.
My own obsession with death began when I was a little girl. It started with reading concentration camp memoirs and morphed into an infatuation with Russian authors. While I ended up studying Gulag narratives for my PhD in Russian literature, my first love was Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy, I believe, would celebrate the existence of Death Cafés. In his masterful novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” published in 1886, the protagonist falls one day while hanging curtains. Though he suffers no injury at the time, he traces the mortal symptoms he develops — a pain in his side and a metallic taste in his mouth — back to this incident. The prospect of death comes suddenly and without notice. The fact that Ivan Ilyich had never considered death is part of what makes his demise so difficult: It can’t inform him how to live.
Ivan Ilyich does everything in his life as one should: He works his way up from examining magistrate to assistant prosecutor in the courts, marries an attractive woman of noble stock, decorates his home with the proper decor (including those curtains). Yet in the throes of excruciating pain, these “achievements” become meaningless. Ivan Ilyich can’t understand why his life feels false when he did everything as society requires. His moral torment becomes even greater than his physical one. Ivan Ilyich’s dying is all the more terrifying precisely because his life was, as Tolstoy writes, “most simple and ordinary and most terrible.” Because Ivan Ilyich prioritized his profession and possessions, he lost the all-important connection to others. His family abandons him, only wanting his death to be over as soon as possible.
Death Cafés are a rebellion against our alienation from death. Jack Fong, a professor of sociology at California Polytechnic Institute in Pomona and author of “The Death Café Movement: Exploring the Horizons of Mortality,” says Death Cafés give participants authorship over their own deaths, instead of “outsourcing them to Kaiser Permanente or Blue Cross.” Fong argues that “a good death is a community experience,” not a solitary one. Death Cafés can help reverse our estrangement from dying. A “very personal experience that used to take place in the home,” Fong claims, “was excised from a sacred space and placed into the cold box of a hospital.”
From their experience with Death Cafés, both Kirkpatrick and Fong have arrived at conclusions similar to Tolstoy’s. Life is not about prestige and possessions, Kirkpatrick argues, “it’s about the amount of good one can do in the world.” Fong’s takeaway is, he says, “service to others,” because what has emerged as most important for him is our shared humanity.
A year and a half of living through COVID has allowed us to reframe our priorities to avoid Ivan Ilyich’s fate. Many of us treasure time with family in a new way, buy less, and appreciate simplicity more. People have quit jobs they hated, abandoned cities that didn’t feel like home, left unhealthy relationships.
The end comes too soon for Ivan Ilyich to change his life, but there is one bright spot for him in his throes of agony — a peasant named Gerasim, who is the only one not scared to be around him. His presence brings Ivan comfort, the way a death doula does today, supporting the dying and their family through the dying process. Unlike doctors and family members, a death doula isn’t trying to fix anything or intervene. They are there simply to be with the dying and help navigate end-of-life choices.
No two conversations in a Death Café are the same, because centering death as a topic means you end up talking about life. People discuss the movies and books and quotations that have moved them. They mine stories from their childhoods. A discussion might veer from travel to climate change, from parenting to suffering. There are often long pauses, moments held in a silence that’s not at all awkward.
Death is a generative force
Although I haven’t lost anyone close to me from COVID-19, I began lockdown only four months after my father-in-law and my father died within a month of each other. I hadn’t fully processed these deaths — didn’t have the space to — until I started going to Death Cafés. Despite my scrutiny of death, I had yet to acknowledge the way it shaped my life. The first time I shared in a Death Café, tears I couldn’t stop poured down my face. I hadn’t realized how much I needed a space to talk about the ones I had loved and lost.
In Jack Fong’s analysis of language used at seven different Death Cafés, the most common word was not “fear” or “suffering” or “loss.” The most common word was “people.” This is what brings participants to Death Cafés over and over again. Strangers end up like family because they’re having conversations that aren’t happening anywhere else — discussions about deep-seated fears, childhood anxieties, dying relatives. Yet such topics don’t make the virtual room feel tense. They make it feel free.
Conversations about taboo topics like death tend not to happen because of our persistent urge to fix things, says Anna Sale, the host of the podcast “Death, Sex and Money” and author of “Let’s Talk About Hard Things.” We need only to meet people in their pain, Sale contends, without the pressure to make things better. Sale chose “death” as the first word in her podcast’s title because she wanted to make the stakes absolutely clear. After all, death is the definition of unfixable.
Sale notes that the burden of tackling difficult subjects has fallen more to the individual as organized religion and other institutions have faltered. “The overwhelming silence in our culture around loss is jarring,” she says.
But living as your most authentic self makes it easier to die. “The pandemic has forced all of us to discuss quality of life issues, not just the dying,” says Alyssa Ackerman, a death doula in Portland, Ore. Those who have regular conversations about death allow it to change the way they live. “Death is a generative force,” says Ackerman. “Life is not disrupted by death. It’s death that frees life.”
Julie Zigoris is a writer and novelist based in San Francisco. Her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Hunger Mountain, and the Russian Review.