No Botox at the Death Cafe
Meeting looks past the 'wrinkles' of a taboo subject
I shouldn't have been surprised when the conversation went straight from polite introductions to assisted suicide. It was, after all, a meeting of "Death Cafe." The entire point was to broach an otherwise taboo topic – to have "an open conversation about the whole death and dying process," as host Brooks Kasson put it. Still, it was the middle of the work week, at the Cafe Express near 34th and Lamar, in the kind of room typically reserved for baby showers and bridal brunches. A homemade lemon pound cake was on display. The tone was anything but macabre.
Kasson and her co-host, Jo Jensen, had instructed us to gather in groups of four at any table we chose. This format was intended to create a safe space. "Most people don't like talking about what happens when they don't have a body," Kasson had told me. "So there is that tenderness there and a certain amount of safety that has to be created." Each table featured a "talking stone": Whoever held the stone had the floor, a practice discouraging "cross-talking" but encouraging participation from the otherwise shy.
Shyness was not a problem at my table. We were chitchatty but reluctant to break any rules, goofily handing the stone back and forth as we introduced ourselves. Then it sat in the middle of the table as we looked silently at one another, then at the stone, before the woman to my left picked it up. She wanted to learn more about her "options," she began. Her father had experienced a lot of pain before he died. He'd asked her to give him enough morphine to end his life – but she knew neither how much to give him nor how to find out. Growing older, she now wonders what her own options might be should she find herself in her father's position one day. "What are my rights?" she asked.
The conversation took on a meandering quality. Perhaps thanks to the stone, no one appeared to feel responsible for answering unanswerable questions or pressing others on details. Topics changed direction easily, and after 45 minutes we switched tables, starting up new threads entirely. People recounted the loss of loved ones – parents, friends, children. Some remembered with comic clarity irrational things they did or said in the throes of grief. Others spoke of the things they feared they might not accomplish before death. A few spoke of having no fear of death at all.
If conversations fell silent, a handful of cards on each table featured questions like, "Where would you prefer to die?" and "What's necessary to have a peaceful or happy death?" Kasson and Jensen wandered about, facilitating. Once, when questions came up about home funerals and green burial services, Kasson provided information about the Austin Memorial Burial and Information Society. Several people took notes.
The gathering was Austin's third installment of Death Cafe, drawing inspiration from a model evolving in other U.S. cities, from Portland to Tucson to Manhattan, the practice having apparently originated in Switzerland with sociologist Bernard Crettaz's "cafes mortels." In 2011, Web designer Jon Underwood brought the events to London, and started a website called deathcafe.com, where Kasson ran across the idea last spring. She joined with Jensen to initiate a group in Austin.
In the U.S., we tend to "Botox" death, says Kasson. "We make sure we don't honor wrinkles and that we sidestep the little old lady or the little old man with the walker, and then we rush on and do our own thing because it has been so segmented from life." In order to "honor life," says Kasson, she wishes also to "honor dying."
Jensen, an oncology chaplain with the Seton Healthcare network, has both a personal and professional interest in Death Cafes. "I find that patients and their loved ones are fearful of talking about human mortality," says Jensen. "This becomes an obstacle to honest communication and often interferes with the ability to genuinely live each day of life."
Of the 24 guests at Thursday's event, most were women. Six men were there, plus a surprising number of people under 40. Caitlin Caven, a young woman in her 20s, spoke of living with chronic illness and its effect on her loved ones. She later told me, via email, that she had been "pleasantly surprised" by the experience. "When I told friends I was going to 'an informal discussion of death,' I would joke that was code for 'hanging out with morose suburban kids outside Hot Topic,'" she wrote. "In retrospect, I guess that says a lot about how taboo death is – who would voluntarily think about it?" She also "loved that they were handing out slices of tea cake," she added. It reminded her of a bit by comedian Eddie Izzard: What if you were offered a choice between cake and death? "Anyone can answer that one," says Izzard. "Cake or death? Uh, cake, please."
For info on the next monthly Death Cafe meeting, see www.facebook.com/deathcafeaustin.