Recently I went to a rather usual event, a Death Café. About twenty people met up at a tearoom in Gresford (Serendipity) to “drink tea, eat cake and discuss death”, the idea being that by breaking down the barriers around talking about death we can make the most of life.
The event was organised by Kim Patel, a counsellor based in Wrexham, and Denise Oliver, a therapist from Chester, so there was a mix of people from the complementary therapy spectrum as well as ministers and psychics among the participants. People who take part in this kind of event are always going to be self-selected and may, perhaps, be those who are already comfortable with talking about death, but it was still a very interesting and productive discussion. The excellent tea and cake were definitely appreciated to keep our tongues lubricated and our brains ticking over.
We kicked off by talking about all the euphemisms there are in the English language that prevent us from ever having to use the words death or dying, Kim told us there were about 200. The interesting thing to me was, that although many of us agreed that we should feel happy to use the unequivocal words, most then reverted to the euphemism of their choice. Language is such a powerful thing and affects the way we think as well as feel; imagine the confusion of a child that has been told her granny has been “lost” or “passed away”. How is she to link that to death and therefore to come to an understanding of it? We also talked about all the really rather odd traditions that are associated with death in our British culture. Many of these may still be harking back to the Victorian era; that strange time when the death of one man, Prince Albert, affected not only his wife and family but also the entire nation for forty years. We wondered how we could more appropriately celebrate someone’s life and grieve for their death in this time and place. And we thought about how we might wish our own funerary rites to be held.
Talking to our families about our death is also probably something we should do more of. What we would wish to happen might be important to us – and our families might have completely different ideas. A friend died last September and his funeral was not what I expected, nor, perhaps, exactly what he would have wished, so other friends thought. But his next of kin wanted a Christian service so that was what she arranged and his friends paid their tribute later in their own way. Does it matter, and to whom? Are funerals and memorials for the dead or for those left behind? My husband and I say to each other: “when I’m dead, do ‘so-and-so’ – but, really, do what you want”. In the Death Café we also talked about how difficult it can be to express our feelings when someone dies – and sometimes even to understand them if they are complex. The death of our friend in September was unexpected, he was a lovely and kind man, and I felt only grief, loss and sadness that we would never see him again as we knew him. But when another friend died a few years ago the feelings were complicated. Guilt, sorrow, anger and then guilt again.
Not long after this event it was the spring equinox and I baked some more cake in order to celebrate life. I made a simnel cake (above) which is associated either with Mothering Sunday, or with Easter. I chose this because it was appropriate for the time of year and I hadn’t made one either for a very long time or, indeed, possibly ever. My parents were visiting and I thought my Mum in particular would appreciate the effort that went into this rich, citrus-laced, marzipan-topped fruitcake and that it might bring back memories of when she used to bake. My Mum has dementia and, because her short term memory is tricky and unreliable, memories of things and people past are more important to her. She liked the cake, we all did, it was an excellent cake and did its job of reinvigorating the past in the present.
A few weeks after the Death Café I feel that it was more than an interesting experience at the time, it really has made me think about all sorts of things, not only death. Things like the way we handle emotions within groups of friends and family. The difficult questions of what happens after someone’s death beget the even more difficult ones of what happens while we’re still alive and perhaps struggling with that life. As a reiki practitioner I try to keep to the precepts of not being angry or worrying, of being grateful for what I have and kind to others, which is a good recipe for life in general – but I’m human, it isn’t always easy. And, of course, I still wonder what does happen after we die. The late, great Sir Terry Pratchett depicted Death as a really rather likeable ANTHROPOMORPHIC PERSONIFICATION who speaks in capitals, likes cats and goes out for a curry. But, Death explains, he is just there for the reaping, the cutting of the thread of life. What happens afterwards is up to you.
I hope there’s cake.