MANCHESTER >> You can eat the cake, and have it too.
Serving a cake — any kind of cake will do — is part of the tradition at meetings of Death Cafe. No, that's not the name of some heavy metal band that never left the 1980s. Death Cafe is an international organization that meets periodically to talk about — you guessed it — death. A new group has started meeting in Manchester to discuss a topic that usually makes most people a little unconfortable and ready to deny. Forever young, right?
Death Cafe has met twice in the last two months at the Spiral Press Cafe, and if the attendance so far is any indication, there will be more gatherings to come, said Robin Taft, a former nurse and the organizer of the group.
The rules are pretty simple. Nothing is off-limits for discussion, unless one participant gets over-judgmental and tries to convince another member they are "wrong" about something. Otherwise, there's no agenda, no dogma; but nor is it a therapy or counseling session either. Rather, it's a chance for people to comfortably explore a difficult topic and how they feel about it, she said.
"I have heard the conversations go so many ways," Taft said, "I hear a lot about near-death experiences at Death Cafe and I would conjecture that's because it's a safe place to talk about it. There's way more laughter than crying."
It may seem paradoxical, but one the main goals of the Death Cafe is to improve your present life, she added,
On this in early November night (the group usually meets the first Tuesday of the month), about 10 people gather around one of the tables and shares their thoughts about death and dying. One talks about a scary moment on an airplane flight while returning home from a vacation. The pilot announced they would be having to make an emergency landing. After the initial rush of apocalyptic thoughts, she found herself thinking that if this was it, it would be OK; she had just enjoyed a great vacation out west and she was on the airplane because of that vacation.
But obviously, the story had a happy ending; the plane landed safely and she made it back home.
Another spoke of being a caregiver for her husband, who had been suffering from Alzheimer's Disease for six years and was now starting to really fail. Sometimes he recognized who she was; sometimes not. She was starting to accept the fact that she was going to lose him; right now it was like a long, slow goodbye, she said. Watching his demise made reflect on how she would eventually have to deal with her own mortality — and who would be there to take care of her?
Simply being able to talk about an often taboo subject was a relief for some. Another theme was the desire to make the most of whatever time was left and to find an internal peace and serenity that were too often elusive and short-lived.
Death Cafes exist in part for that very purpose — "to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives," according to the (global) organization's website.
Death Cafes have their roots in some early discussion groups launched by Bernard Crettaz, a French sociologist who organized about 30 "Mortal Cafes" in Switzerland, France and Belgium in 2004. In 2011, the idea was picked up on by Jon Underwood, an Englishman who hosted the first "Death Cafes" in his his London home. The following year, the first American meet-up was held in Columbus, Ohio. More than 2,500 have been held across the world over the past four years, according to the organization's website.
Taft attended one in Rutland two years ago, and was immediately drawn to it. She had worked as a nurse for a long period of time and had seen terminally ill patients not always handled with the most sensitive of care. A system which encourages heroic measures to perpetuate life, often at great cost, both emotional and financial, seemed wrong to her, she said.
"The way death is treated in most hospitals is pretty awful," she said. "Things may change as baby boomers age, because there will be so many, and a drain on a system where resources are already in short supply."
She writes about facing death in a peaceful, accepting and dignified way on her blog site, allowingnaturaldeath.org.
"When I attended a death cafe I thought, 'this is perfect,' because to me the only good way to accomplish your own good death is to talk to other people about it," she said. "So they can help you get it, because by the time that's where you are, you're not going to be able to advocate for your own needs."
And then there's the cake, which is taken seriously and one of the few obligatory rituals the free, not-for profit organization insists on. It underscores that living a full happy life now is part of the prepartion for what lies ahead.