A Death Café needn’t be morbid or darkFlickr: Sebastian Dooris

In his Advice on Dying, the Dalai Lama says: “If you are not aware of death, you will fail to take advantage of this special human life that you have already attained.” Studying tragedy this term has put me smack in the middle of death and dying, at least in a literary sense, but an essay on mourning this week made me realise how rarely we (Brits, Westerners, students, whoever) actually discuss the reality of it.

The closest we get is bereavement, and even that can be hard to give time to during term; if you’re here, you’re supposedly capable of just getting on with it, and we often don’t want to foist real-life problems on already-stressed friends.

Until recently, I hadn’t thought about my own demise beyond “be safe” and “I hope that dark hedge doesn’t have a murderer in it”. I’d had pets that had died, and I’d lost family members and grieved and struggled on.

But what would happen if I died? I was encouraged to write a will before I went travelling; sitting at my computer, working out the details of who should get what and, mind-bogglingly, what I should leave for my parents to allocate, I faced up to the harsh reality for the first time: we all die. It’s the one experience (barring birth, which we can’t remember) that every single human will definitely have, and we never talk about it! Ageing? Sure. Hopes and fears? Yep. Even the fear of dying, up to a point. But the real experience of it, what we’ve seen of death, what we thought? We shy away, or put it off.

In a way, it’s the final taboo. Even in the 70s, Columbia Records begged punk visionary David Hackney to change his band’s name to something more palatable than Death: he didn’t, and the band flopped. I wonder too whether death has been edged out of our cultural vision because it’s basically anathema to capitalism – as the ADC main show reminded us not two weeks ago, you can’t take it with you.

The myopic world-view we’re fed is that you, the consumer, are all that matters, which has its foundations in the all-consuming present. There’s a reason that ascetics give away all their possessions and aim for a higher truth, and part of that reason is reconciliation with the fact of death.

We’re also being distanced from the repulsive realities. Despite grim cultural fascination with TV violence and online beheadings, death in language is couched in euphemisms like ‘passing on’ and ‘going to sleep’. It’s medicalised to the point that we’re always at least a step removed. It’s easy to forget that until recently, deaths happened in homes, and almost everyone had spent time with a dead person. Tragedy deals with relatives in ancient Greece who are outraged not to be allowed to wash and prepare their beloved’s corpse. We must be one of the first generations, even in the West, where an adult might not ever have seen a dead person, or ever even have lost someone.

I wonder if a lot of us think we know what we want, and expect from our own deaths. We perhaps think that we want to avoid hospices, or that we would or wouldn’t want life support. What more is there to think about? Age UK research suggests that the most preferred place to die is at home in the UK; but only 18 per cent of over-65s die at home.

What else might happen, and how can we prepare for it? There never seems to be a right time to think about it. (On the bus? In the library? At funerals? Surely not.) It doesn’t help either that imagining your own funeral, lavish with flowers and weeping, is an old comic stereotype of extreme narcissism. Daily life is not too conducive to facing the void.

With this in mind, a guy called Jon Underwood has created the ‘Death Cafe’. It’s based on Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz’s ‘Café Mortel’, which presented a chance to discuss all things grave. It’s now an international collective that establishes spaces where people can talk about death over tea and cake – and anyone that’s happy to follow the few ground rules is welcome to set one up, too.

A Death Café needn’t be morbid or dark, nor is it bereavement counselling or a psychopath convention – that we assume this is part of the problem. It is simply an open environment, with no agenda other than to explore the issue and hopefully reduce our fears about it.

Switzerland’s Dr Peter Gasser gave 12 terminally ill people controlled dosages of LSD, finding a 20 per cent improvement in “end-of-life anxiety”. This isn’t a course of treatment I would recommend, but it’s interesting to consider that our fear may be more social conditioning that natural instinct.

I wonder if Cambridge could use a Death Café. The University is one of the most inward-looking and short-sighted environments I’ve ever been in – ironically, given its aeon-spanning history and hive of intellectuals. A career at the end of your degree is a stretch of the imagination.

It’s easy to forget the big questions, and that lack of perspective, I think, contributes to the intensity of the stress here; we forget that missing a deadline isn’t actually the end of the world. Death is the great equalizer, one of life’s only unavoidable elements and it isn’t going anywhere, so it’s about time we faced up to it. It might actually do us some good.

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