“Death Cafe”–Not Exactly a Last Supper

Before I knew what a “death cafe” referred to, I pictured a collection of skulls clacking away as they helped themselves to a buffet, with soft foods and liquids being the most favored by far. “Death cafe?” How could food and death be juxtapositioned? One of the leading graphics in an article that  unveiled the meaning of this phrase showed elegant blue and white dishware obediently standing in a holder. A skull took up the center of each plate, hogging all the blue, leaving the white to fill in the periphery. Written on the rim was “Bone appetit.” See that? I’m not the only one who thinks like I do.

“Death cafes” are part of a movement to break cultural taboos against openly discussing such topics as how we want to be remembered, how to bring up the subject of dying with loved ones and how we want our funerals to be conducted. The food part, making this subject a bit easier to swallow, usually consists of beverages and snacks.The very first death cafes began in 2004 and really took off in 2011. The organizers say that by now approximately one thousand people have attended them in countries such as England, Australia, the United States, and Italy.

My husband Steve and I, both of us curiosity seekers, went to a death cafe in someone’s home  the middle of this month. We helped ourselves to some snacks–the best one was guava paste and cheese spread on crackers–and waited our turn to answer the question of why we  were there. Many people said they were open to discussing it because they had lost a loved one at a tender age, or they themselves were young when someone very close to them had died. My answer was that I wanted to see what people were saying about this topic and that I thought I might get ideas for my blog posts. (See?)

We then had to complete the phrase, “Death is……” Naturally I said, “Death is at the edge.” I say naturally because my book title is “Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died” (Pen-L Publishing) Later when we broke into smaller groups, I said that when I contemplate this edge, it throws life, which is on the other side of that edge, into sharper relief.

I figured that I would have to forgo retrieving any humorous gems from this particular event, but luckily someone said, “Oh, I thought this event was called a “Death Cave.” “Death Cave?” Oh, is that where thoughts on death end up after we chew the fat? When Steve and I laughed about that on the way home, he said “that sounds like the Flintstones were going to host the event.” It’s about time. I never have ever heard Fred and Wilma  address the issue, have you?

For related article, see https://offbeatcompassion.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/death-cafes-home-of-the-death-deniers/

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A Choir Rehearsal That Grew Into Two

Songs like ‘I will Not Leave You Comfortless” by Everett Titcomb and  “Bamboo” by Peter, Paul and Mary definitely left me comforted. I was a guest at a rehearsal like no other. The Threshold Choir, a national group with various local chapters of volunteers, sings to the sick and the dying. I often have sung to patients myself, and so I was eager to learn more about this choir with its exceptional name. (You can go to Thresholdchoir.org to hear soothing samples of the music and see their rehearsal locations.) “Threshold” to me implies a fuzzy boundary between life and death, between sickness and health, a boundary so uncertain and shifting that it creates a separate space. A middle ground. Music is one of the things that can dwell in this space, making the distinction between life and death less stark, less urgent even.

Little did I know that I would be experiencing not just one but two rehearsals that evening. After several songs, the leader placed a lightweight recliner in the middle of the circle we had formed to practice. It looked something like a hammock frozen at some moment in time, formed of a fine mesh of metal painted white. Anyone who wanted to volunteer to be sung to could lie down in it for a song or two, as long as they agreed to close their eyes. Since I traveled very far for this and figured I might not have another opportunity, a philosophy I have even when not traveling far, I volunteered. Besides, I was tired from the long hot trip and and rather keyed up from meeting a whole new group of people.

The recliner looked inviting. Fancy that, I was going to be sung to. Their music spread all over the inside of the circle and I felt it soak into me. But then I was startled as I realized this was a rehearsal for what I might experience if this choir were singing to me when I lay dying. After drinking in the mellow tones, I felt soothed yet afraid. I knew why they were there, and it was not just for aesthetic pleasure. I drifted in this fluid space as if the recliner had become more pliant, more giving. I was in the moment, and then a regret about my life surfaced: I had not lived in the moment often enough. I often had wounded the moment with distractions and anxieties. Those moments were half-lived at best. I then drifted to the mystery of what lay ahead and to the times when I dwelt alongside others in their in-between spaces. I filled those spaces with finely-tuned listening, with  spirited teaching, with touch, with steady soprano song.

Related article: https://offbeatcompassion.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/hurry-up-time-is-of-the-essence-must-reads-for-the-dying/ (I talk about “must-listen-to” music as well.)

Announcement: Chapter Two of the book, Encountering the Edge, consists of stories about my singing to patients as well as the effects of other music. This link will take you to my author page at the publisher’s site. The link includes a free excerpt: http://pen-l.com/EncounteringTheEdge.html