I went to my first Death Café on Tuesday night. It was held at the Tallahassee Senior Center, which is busy place in the heart of “Mid-Town” Tallahassee, and just a block from where I live.
One aspect that attracted me to the whole concept of a Death Café is that it is secular, and welcoming of all people regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. It’s hard to find that kind of environment or organization when it comes to death, which is so heavily managed by religions.
I’ve known of Death Cafés pretty much since they started back in 2011, and have wanted to attend one. I even considered trying to host one myself, but with graduate school and then full-time employment, I knew I could not do so effectively. Big Bend Hospice has been hosting them here in town for a while, though, but I did not know that until I saw it advertised on the big electronic sign out front the Senior Center (which happens to be where I wait for the bus each morning on my way to work, so you know, captive audience).
It’s probably not surprising that at 45, I was one of the younger people in attendance. It was about 30 people total, I’d guess, and we were broken up into smaller groups of five-to-eight at separate tables. There was a catered dinner, which was nice, since I had just rolled in from work (carting my backpack and wearing sneakers – bus riders gotta be ready to run, that’s all I’m sayin’!) and did not have time to go home first.
The group I was a part of was made up of people who had both lost loved ones and were also planning their own death/dying management (living wills, funeral arrangements, and such forth), so we all had that in common. There was no one there who was wary of talking about death and dying. Our shells were fully cracked by our life experiences and we were all ready to share.
I can’t say it was a particularly profound experience, but perhaps therein lies its value. There are few ways for non-deists to talk with death or our experiences as grievers in any kind of group setting outside of our circle of family and friends, and so we tend to just stay quiet.
But a Death Café, by its very nature, is designed to be that kind of secular, supportive place. It’s not the same as a grief support group, but then, I’m not at a stage in my life where I feel the need to be a part of a support group like that. I am simply looking for people who share my desire to break the taboo that surrounds death and dying, and talk to them about how our larger society frames our very personal issues. Since that was our common goal, it was a safe and comfortable place for me to participate without feeling judged or marginalized because of my atheism.
I will definitely attend a future event, although maybe not monthly. I’m unsure of what value I bring to the table, honestly, and would generally prefer not to talk about my own experiences but that’s just unavoidable. I do feel like a curiosity sometimes, and have since I was 26: tragedy writ large on memories of a long-dead family. It’s my story and I am comfortable in it, but people often react sensationally to it. That’s boring to me, but I understand how my life story is a little bit of a spectacle. My goal, though, is to try and talk less about “what happened” and more about “how do we function in society, and how ill-equipped is society to deal with us?”
I’m fortunate that Death Cafés are a thing now. I wonder – as I so often do – how different (if at all) my life would be if such resources had existed 20 years ago…