Let's talk about death. It's lovely out, spring rains are greening the world and trees are blossoming. The sun's ramped up its intensity, warming away whatever's left of winter's chill ... and I want to talk about death. Amid all this vitality, it's natural for thoughts (mine, anyway) to drift toward the inevitable, the end with a capital "E." No, I'm not naturally morbid. I just believe that living with a healthy respect for mortality enhances my appreciation of the day. You know, "Let's eat and drink, for tomorrow we die," carpe diem and, of course, YOLO.
So, it was serendipitous when I tuned in to Colorado Matters recently, just in time to hear an interview with Anita Larson who organized the first Death Cafe in Denver last September. Friends in other states have become regular attendees, so this was happy news. Death Cafe's are pretty much what you might imagine -- or not -- a group of people getting together to drink coffee, eat pastries, and chat about death: concepts of afterlife, end of life care, what words you'd like on your tombstone, etc. According to a recent profile in Westword, "To understand what a Death Cafe is, you need to know what a Death Cafe isn't. It's not a grief-support group for those who have lost loved ones. It's not a morbid event where people draped in black talk about the meaningless void that death symbolizes for some. And it's definitely not a religious event of any kind."
The Death Cafe model was launched in the UK in 2011 by Jon Underwood of the Impermanence network and psychotherapist Sue Barsky Reid "to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives." If this sounds like your cup of tea ... or coffee... you'll be pleased to learn that more Death Cafes are planned in and around Denver; here's a calendar.
Thanatophobia, fear of death, is arguably a distinguishing trait of contemporary American society. We do our darndest not to age or, at least, not to show it. And death? Not something we tend to acknowledge, which is unfortunate because acknowledgement, one way or another, is inevitable. Consider the funeral industry, which has effectively made it unnecessary for us to confront the reality of physical death. In truth, it wasn't that long ago that death, like birth, occurred at home among family. Like the resurging popularity of midwifery and home births, there is a growing movement to reclaim death as a natural transition that all who wish can be part of.
Let me introduce you to The Order of the Good Death, "a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality...The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears -- whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not."
The Order was founded by L.A.-based mortician, Caitlin Doughty, in 2009. While seriously committed to her outfit's objectives, Doughty manages the task with intelligence and a lot of humor. Check out her Ask a Mortician videos on such topics as: Is it Legal? Viking Funerals, Exploding Caskets, and The Ecstasy of Decay, Parts 1 and 2. She also addresses pet death, natural burial, and how to talk with kids about death. The site is also an excellent source for artists who draw inspiration from death, scholars who study it, and other "death professionals," like morticians, architects, activists, scientists, and fashion designers motivated by a desire to change our prevailing attitudes.
Right. Back to life and the springtime world. Enjoy your day, people!
Suggested Reading / Viewing
Bodies in Motion and at Rest by Thomas Lynch (2000)
The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford (2000)
Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (2003)
Knocking on Heaven's Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death by Katy Butler (2013)
Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen (2006)
Final Rites: Reclaiming the American Way of Death by Joshua Slocum (2011)
What Am I Going to Do with Myself When I Die? by John D. Canine (1999)
The Undertaking (DVD)
If you'd like more information on this or any subject, contact Reference Services, located on Level 3 of the Central Library:
Scratch the line about 'the sun warming away whatever's left of winter's chill.' Winter is putting up quite a fight!
I shall see you all in Vallhalla with a mug of fine brew in my hand!
I'll wear a red carnation so you'll know me!
I love your blogs, few and far between, but so worth the wait and always thought-provoking.
I never thought about how the funeral industry helps us avoid the reality of death, although it really is ultimately unavoidable. I should probably consider attending one of these cafes sometime. Thanks for the great post CJ!!
My carnation will be pink !
Fascinating topic! Thank you! I hope the Library considers being a location.