At The Death Cafe, they celebrate life

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Cameron Ickes, far right, Director of Forest and Family Services for Life Forest, explains the premise of Death Cafe to attendees at The Bookery on March 13. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – Since human beings began documenting our shared condition—some 5,000 years ago—a consistent antagonist has loomed in all of our stories, an inevitable and undeniable final act that most people spend their lives trying to avoid, ignore, or haphazardly explain.

Our scriptures, regardless of the text—whether it is the Bible, the Quran, the Torah, the Sutras or whatnot—seek to assuage its blow.

The poet T.S. Eliot personified it as “the Eternal footman” who held his persona J. Alfred Prufrock by his coat and “snicker[ed]” as his narrator sat “afraid.”

Shakespeare’s capricious Prince Hamlet questioned whether it was “nobler” to confront the outrageous injustices of its condition, or “to die—to sleep, no more.”

French philosopher Albert Camus pressed us to ask whether we “should kill [ourselves], or have a cup of coffee” when we awake each morning.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that God was dead, and all bets were off. When you die, you’re worm-food so indulge and make the most of living.

If any said references evoked an eye-roll, and you’ve chosen to avoid the topic of death, I’m guessing The Death Café at The Bookery on Elm Street in Manchester on March 13 wasn’t your scene.

More than 30 people showed up for the inaugural Death Cafe at The Bookery for casual conversation about the inevitable. PhotolCarol Robidoux

But for the robust crowd in attendance on Sunday—so impressive that it had to be broken into two groups so all attendees had a platform to speak—talking about death and their experiences with it was a communal catharsis.

“It’s a way to normalize death,” said Cameron Ickes, the Director of Forest and Family Services for Life Forest, one of the sponsors of the event. “It’s supposed to be a positive experience for people.”

The model for Death Café, a non-profit which is based on the work of Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz and developed in the United Kingdom in 2011 by Jon Underwood, is a way “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives,” according to Death Café’s website.

“[Death] is the only inevitable thing in the entire world,” said Ickes. “Death is not a comfortable thing to talk about, but it’s crazy to defy it.”

The format for Death Café is simple: There is no format, no agenda, no religion and no one is attempting “to push anyone to any conclusions,” said Ickes. “It’s not a counseling session. It’s an open-ended discussion about the taboo topic of death,” he said.

In the group that I observed, moderated by Ickes—the other group was moderated by Life Forest co-founder Mel Bennett[1], which Manchester Ink Link publisher Carol Robidoux attended—began with informal introductions. Our group consisted of sundry participants from hospice workers, to those recently grieving and their supporters, to folks who have lost loved ones and were still trying to make some sense of it.

“It’s not a counseling session. It’s an open-ended discussion about the taboo topic of death.” Photo/Carol Robidoux

The group initially agreed that death should not be a “taboo” topic. “It’s crazy to avoid it,” said one participant[2]. “It’s one of the only inevitable things we share. We prepare for birth, so why shouldn’t we prepare for death?[3]

Next, there was a general befuddlement as to why human beings mourn death as opposed to celebrating a person’s life then the ecological illogic of burial—while acknowledging its ritualistic symbolism—was examined[4].

“I want my remains to become an apple tree,” one person said. “So people can make pies.”

In a more quantum query, the members of the discussion asked what happens to a person’s energy when they cease to exist in their human vessel. Then the conversation traversed into things philosophical, discussions of nihilism and hedonism while carefully and respectfully toeing the lines of theism, acknowledging that faith is a means of assuaging the fear of death.

In a poignant turn of phrase, one person said: “Death is a comma, not a period.”

While Ickes hinted at plans for The Death Cafe to become a monthly endeavor, there are no succinct summations for the conversations I observed at The Bookery on Sunday, but I can say—and I’m a man mired in my cynicism—in the time I spent listening to these good people, and their candor, I left feeling a little bit better about the space I share with them on this earth.

And possibly beyond.

________

[1] Life Forest provides private burial plots in Hillsborough, N.H., where the cremated remains of loved ones (and pets) are composted and, in place of a headstone, a tree is planted in its place. Please see the link for more information.

[2] For obvious reasons, the names are redacted.

[3] Some of these quotations are fragmented for the sake of clarity in this piece.

[4] I’m going to refrain from personal details in respect for privacy.


 

About this Author

nathan-graziano

Nathan Graziano

Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester with his wife and kids. He's the author of nine collections of fiction and poetry. His most recent book, Fly Like The Seagull was published by Luchador Press in 2020. He's a high school teacher and freelance writer, and in his free time, he writes bios about himself in the third person. For more information, visit his website: http://www.nathangraziano.com