Death Cafes: Home of the Death Deniers?

Am I avoiding dealing with death by writing the kind of posts I do on this blog? Am I merely playing at talking about it because I often find a humorous angle on this topic? Some people may think so, because that is how they reacted to a newspaper article online that explained another avenue to death awareness, the Death Café movement. Death Cafes are meetings over coffee and cake that take place all over the world in a safe agenda-free environment, where people can talk about such concerns as how they want to be remembered, what their experiences with the death of loved ones was like and how to appreciate life more.

Many comments about the cafes were quite receptive or just plain curious. But the ones that were not seemed to arise out of some intense and persistent subterranean flow of emotions. The negative commenters roared that participants in Death Cafes were pretentious and were the biggest death deniers of all. On the face of it, that seems like saying that instead of a serious discussion, those attending a Death Café or the similar Death Over Dinner get-togethers are seeking entertainment, much as what one may experience at a séance or by reading a novel with a title like “Tall Tales from the Dead.”  That sentiment would be easy to rebut as well as to make fun of simply by carefully reading the article they were responding to. Far more instructive, however, is to tap into the subterranean currents crashing here and dashing over there.

Perhaps some of the derisive comments arise from hostility toward the “leisure class” who have the luxury of spending time to talk about abstractions like what they want on their epitaph, and who wish to impress themselves and others with how forward-thinking they are. Possibly in a similar vein, what’s afoot for some readers is resentment from having experienced years of care giving and the agony of a loved one’s slow deterioration and relentless descent into death. Hearing “Have some dessert and let’s chat about death,” must clash with that experience like viewing the movie Mash upon the heels of taking in The Killing Fields.  Or what this could be about is their own terror of taking up this subject, and thus they may be projecting their own death denial onto the very people who, however timidly and tentatively, are taking this subject on.

And to be honest with myself, what might the kernel of truth be in their dismissiveness? Do I distance myself from the downside of death by recalling charming anecdotes and writing with a humorous touch? I like to think that is not the whole story, though it may be a protective layer that makes approaching it ultimately possible, like the way a scuba diver’s mask allows her to see what lies ahead in the otherwise dusky waters. I like to think Death Cafes and my blog posts and all the other exposure to this topic will take us nearer and nearer to the searing enhancement of the living moment that looking death square in the face entails.

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3 thoughts on “Death Cafes: Home of the Death Deniers?

  1. DJ says:

    We all tend to distance ourselves and protect ourselves from what we consider unpleasant. Some would say we all live in denial. I wonder if some people attend the Death Cafe events to get an insight or glimpse of how they can control their death?


    • It makes sense to say we try to insulate ourselves against anything unpleasant, since our instinct is to do what we can to preserve and even enhance life. So deliberately working against denial may feel counter-intuitive, because in the short run it is unpleasant, but in the long run may make things less unpleasant.

      “Control their death” can mean so many things, including a person on dialysis deciding to stop getting it; a terminal patient permitting a doctor to assist in hastening his death, accepting or rejecting certain treatments, and changing one’s lifestyle. Death cafe organizers certainly can address these issues. DJ, thanks for taking me up on making a comment. -Karen


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