Death cafes: Are you thirsty? I'm dying for a coffee

By Peter Bromhead

Tea and sympathy traditionally accompany bereavement but soon you could also have cake, cheese toasties and frankness about mortality. Death cafes are springing up all over the country. Being in the right age group (early 80s) to contemplate a stroll through the valley of death, an irreverent Peter Bromhead couldn't resist an invitation to a weekend meeting to discuss the complexities of the inevitable.
The Death Cafe is a world-wide social franchise for chatting openly about dying and death.
The Death Cafe is a world-wide social franchise for chatting openly about dying and death.

The forum was held in an anteroom of a bustling cafe, under the ­banner heading "Tauranga- Death-Cafe" and was a Sunday lunchtime affair.

Society members are required to order from the menu in advance of the meeting and their selections were eventually brought by a team of busy waitresses with laden trays who somewhat incongruously kept interrupting by asking: "Who ordered the sausage roll and tomato chutney?"

When solemnly discussing the ­correct procedure for blocking a corpse's orifices, refocusing on somebody's sausage roll order tends to break the serious nature of the ­proceedings.

The Death Cafe is a world-wide social franchise for chatting openly about dying and death. There is no agenda, objectives or themes, it is a simple open conversation, facilitated to increase our awareness of death and enrich our (finite) lives.

So when I discovered a forum had been created in Tauranga, I immediately emailed the secretary seeking further information.

The well-established local group had already enjoyed several meetings with a membership of more than 50 keen to explore the subject.

It consisted of the usual suspects, a smattering of elderly ladies, aware like myself that the walls are closing in and death must be lurking somewhere in the wings, waiting to pounce.

There were also a number of youngish people who, I considered, had little to concern themselves about mortality for at least a few more decades.

I'm immediately suspicious of youth wishing to explore such matters and tend - in my journalistic ­manner - to wonder if they are really into some oddball interest like ­vampires or ­necrophilia.

We sat at small tables and one by one were asked to express our views on ­dying. As I cannot take seriously subjects clearly beyond understanding, I joked about my funeral plans, explaining that I would find it amusing to have my mobile ring from inside my coffin and that my voice - via a recording, of course - would automatically reply: "I can't talk now, I'm at a meeting."

This was greeted by a smattering of faint polite smiles from the gathering that clearly expected me to come up with something more profound, without descending into graveyard humour.

One formidable lady turned out to be not only a high-school teacher, but also a funeral celebrant. She swiftly assured the group she wasn't there hustling for business, but merely because of her professional association with death and the ceremonial proceedings associated with such events.

Burial or cremation? Where would they like to die? It's not easy to do. Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Burial or cremation? Where would they like to die? It's not easy to do. Illustration / Peter Bromhead

I noted even high-school teachers - and funeral celebrants - have tattoos these days, which in a more enlightened era, I would have regarded as ­bordering on profanity.

There seemed to be considerable ­interest in what is now being termed "natural funeral procedures". A rather charming middle-aged lady with long plaited white hair enthusiastically drove this particular subject.

Her style of dress suggested former hippy-dippy times, leaving me making a mental note not to pursue a personal friendship that would inevitably lead to plates of wholesome vegan produce washed down with lemon balm and mint tea.

The idea of natural funeral procedures is akin to home birth ­principles, giving the grieving next-of-kin the ­opportunity to prepare the body of the departed with greenie cosmetics and a suitable eco-friendly shroud before dispatching the corpse to meet the worms in some sort of wicker basket coffin.

Listening to the enthusiastic ­discussions for a new-age natural ­funeral, I concluded there's nothing really new age about the procedure, being the way my grandfather was laid out on the kitchen table when he died - washed and shaved by my grandmother and her children before being dressed in his Sunday best in preparation to meet his maker.

I joked about my funeral plans, explaining that I would find it amusing to have my mobile ring from inside my coffin and that my recorded voice would reply: "I can't talk now, I'm at a meeting."

Once again, I drolly interrupted the discussion by asking if a "natural ­funeral procedure" was gluten free? Several of those present commenced rolling their eyes heavenwards, ­clearly wanting somebody with celestial ­powers to close down my idle brevity by turning me into a block of salt.

One or two members, who had ­clearly travelled to distant lands, ­reminded the group about more exotic ways of disposing of human flesh, such as ­being stuffed down chimneys and left to ­gently rot away.

The thought of ending up like smoked salmon has some appeal.

The question "Do you have a death wish?" is not normally bandied about in seriousness. But have you ­actually asked whether a parent, partner or friend has a wish, or wishes, concerning their death?

Burial or cremation? Where would they like to die? It's not easy to do.

A survey by the UK charity Dying Matters revealed more than 70 per cent of people are uncomfortable talking about death and less than a third of us have spoken to family members about end-of-life wishes.

But despite this ingrained reluctance, there are signs of burgeoning interest in exploring death.

The renaissance in coffee, cake and funeral caskets is thought to have started in 2011 in London, organised by ­former council worker Jon ­Underwood.

"We don't want to shove death down people's throats," Underwood told the Independent. "We just want to create an environment where talking about death is natural and comfortable."

This is what inspired Underwood to create the non-profit Death Cafe in 2011, based on the Swiss Cafe Mortel ­movement.

A death cafe in Maine, America. Photo / Peter Lindquist
A death cafe in Maine, America. Photo / Peter Lindquist

As Underwood saw it, Western ­society has long outsourced discussions about death to doctors, nurses, priests and undertakers. The result, he says, is we have lost control of one of the most significant events we ever face.

He got the idea from sociologist ­Bernard Crettaz, whose Cafe Mortel gained momentum in the noughties and has since spread to France.

Underwood has begun a Death Cafe movement in English-speaking countries and his website ­includes instructions for setting up your own.

The premise was simple: people go along, drink tea, eat cake and discuss death - not to be morbid, just to raise awareness and to "help people make the most of their (finite) lives".

Underwood went on to produce a guide in 2012 to running your own Death Cafe. Since then, more than 1000 have popped up in 90 countries.

Anyone can host a Death Cafe and they've been held in a variety of ­venues, from cemeteries to yurts to Moroccan belly-dancing restaurants.

They are traditionally pop-up events, but late last year, it was announced the first permanent Death Cafe would open in London.

And now they are rapidly growing in popularity in New Zealand.

I was tempted to tell the gathering about my experiences in a mid-North Island paper mill where I ended up carting a corpse in a wheelbarrow in the middle of the night. I got the impression this particular saga wouldn't impress my fellow Cafe of Death members.

The trouble with dying is that ­nobody is sure what happens once you croak.

Christians clearly believe in an ­afterlife, based on the originator of the faith supposedly rising from his tomb after being brain-dead for three days.

Pathologists would tend to shrug their shoulders at such a remarkable recovery, based on the known ­scientific facts associated with mortality.

Others believe in a series of rebirths, as favoured by those who believe in the rationality of various Eastern ­philosophies.

Back in Tauranga, when the conversation turned to pondering on the likelihood of an afterlife, I thought it appropriate to mention the comments made by the late well-known ­Australian ­zillionaire Kerry Packer.

Well before his death, Packer apparently collapsed and was declared dead for some six minutes, but thanks to ­frantic medical attention was revived.

When he was asked what was it like being dead he replied to an ­interviewer: "Son, I've been to the other side and let me tell you, there's nothing f***ing there."

Recalling Packer's comments ­appeared unhelpful to the gathering and the silence that followed suggested that once again I had managed to suck all the oxygen out of the room.

As the meeting came to a close, we were each asked if we had personal death stories we would like to relate.

I was tempted to tell the gathering about my ­experiences in a mid-North Island paper mill where I ended up carting a corpse in a wheelbarrow in the middle of the night.

Somehow I got the impression that this particular saga - that read like an ­early Ealing Studios Film ­Comedy - wouldn't impress my ­fellow ­attendees at the cafe of death, in spite of the ­obvious connections to the subject matter.

It was refreshing to step out of a gloomy windowless meeting room where we had been entombed for three hours to feel the warmth of the late ­afternoon ­sunshine on my face.

For a brief joyful moment, I pondered - is this what resurrection feels like?

For more about Death Cafes, go to: deathcafe.com

- Herald on Sunday

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