Taboos over tea: what can we learn from visiting a Death Cafe?
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Death is inevitable, no matter how much we try to avoid thinking about it. The Death Cafe movement wants to get us all talking about dying, with tea and cake to sweeten the deal
Death is everywhere. When it comes to true crime podcasts, murder mystery documentaries, morbid movies and melancholy music, we simply can't get enough. Turn that focus onto our own mortality, however, and fascination often turns to fear.
We know that it's inevitable for all of us, yet we rarely make time to discuss the dreaded 'd' word, or even face up to our own feelings about the big sleep. Denial and repression might not be the healthiest way to deal with death, though, leading to more fear and anxiety over our inescapable expiration date. Open conversations are the best ways to start tackling a 'taboo' topic, and that's exactly what Death Cafes are all about.
The idea is simple. Over tea, coffee and cakes, people gather to talk about death. Neither counselling sessions nor support groups, the meetings are informal gatherings where discussion is free-flowing and nothing is "too morbid". The first Death Café was held in London in 2011, and since then, the events have become a global phenomenon, with groups meeting regularly in towns and cities the world over. A Death Café isn't a physical, bricks-and-mortar space, but a temporary event held in pre-existing cafes, pubs, restaurants and homes. On the first Monday of every month, one such event takes place at Ipswich Town Hall, nestled away in the corner of the Coffee Cat café.
"It's all about normalising death," said Adele Chaplain, facilitator of the Ipswich Death Café, who spoke with me when I popped down to participate in the group's monthly musings on mortality. "Talking about these things makes it a less formidable concept."
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Upon starting a new career as a humanist funeral celebrant, Adele quickly realised that people needed to talk about death, and that people were looking for an outlet for these conversations.
"This isn't grief counselling, and I'm not a grief counsellor," Adele says. "This is, however, an open, safe space for anyone to talk about death, dying, bereavement, grief - anything at all that they want to talk about."
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On this particular Monday, the conversation was far-reaching and comprehensive, tackling everything from ''green' burials to symptoms of grief and fear of the great unknown. Our group was small but talkative, and conversation flowed with extraordinary ease. Over tea, we shed our shyness and spoke about our fears, concerns, curiosities and questions, not noticing that we had talked for almost two hours without a break. Time flies when you're discussing death, it would seem.
"Conversations take a different turn every time," says Adele. "We've talked about all manner of things, and this was a really good meeting today. We get a wide mix of people at every session, with new faces every time. Some people come just because they are curious, others because they are recently bereaved or have some kind of life-limiting condition - but absolutely anyone is welcome."
Our group was made up exclusively of Death Café first-timers, and while we differed in age, background and professions, we were all connected by a desire to talk. It might seem strange to say that I enjoyed visiting a Death Café, given the topics we discussed, but as the session drew to an end, I felt glad that I'd taken the time to come. Not just for the cathartic release of discussing a subject we tend to avoid, but for the opportunity to sit down and talk with a handful of perfect strangers.
How good it is to talk and listen. No distractions, no clock-watching, no phones on the table. Our modern lives are marked by busyness and overstimulation, and it can be shocking just how little time we take to talk to our loved ones - let alone to complete strangers. Carving out two hours of a Monday morning to sit in a café and get philosophical over freshly brewed tea can seem like a luxury, but this opportunity to connect with others shouldn't be dismissed as frivolous.
After all, fears about death can often stem from fears of a life not fully lived. And there is something to be said about breaking your normal routine and throwing yourself into situations that challenge you. Isn't that what life is all about? Thinking about death means making sense of the time we are given. Taking some of that time to sit down and connect with others over tea and cake? Well, for me, that's time well spent.
To learn more about local Death Cafes, visit www.theipswichcelebrant.co.uk/deathcafe