How to balance new traditions with old ones.
I was eight years old when my father passed away. I vividly remember the last time I saw him: he was at the hospital, reclined in a bed, offering me a bite of his ice cream. Now and then I regret shrugging off his offer. The next time I saw him he was laid out in a coffin.
By then I had a passing understanding of death, but I wasn’t intimate with all of its textures—the cavernous loneliness, or the gradual, guilt-inducing return to routine in its aftermath.
There’s no guidebook to grief, we are all unique and alone in our emotional lives after a loved one passes away. As a child, I felt embarrassed by the sadness I felt. I didn’t want people to feel bad for me, so I wouldn’t let them see me cry. As I grew up, I continued to think of grieving as a messy and private thing—I still have friends who don’t even know my father has passed. I wonder now how it would have changed the experience of my father’s death to have prepared for it, to have talked about it beforehand. And for that matter, to talk about it after. Luckily, there is still time.
My discomfort with addressing death never receded as I grew up. In fact, it didn’t even strike me as unusual, since our culture at large tends to shy away from the topic. For that reason, it was strange at first, but then liberating, to settle into a chair at Albuquerque’s Death Cafe to talk in earnest about death and everything that comes with it.
Hosted by the “Doyenne of Death,” Gail Rubin, author of “A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Intend to Die,” and a certified thanatologist, this particular death café is a small branch of larger movements that have been dubbed “death positivity,” or in some instances “death acceptance.” Death cafés are some of the most visible and well-known branches of the growing movement and exist on an international scale.
An idea that originated with the Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, these cafés mortel, as he originally called them, are free, monthly community gatherings in which attendees are invited to share thoughts about death, loss, mourning, and the experience of saying goodbye—all within a dedicated space to do so, free of any judgment.
“We have a broken relationship with mortality,” Rubin explained as we sat together at a death café, the Sandia Mountains turning pink as the sun set. “There’s such silence surrounding death, but engaging with our mortality is not morbid.” As Rubin sees it, engaging with death, as well as planning ahead, can encourage a certain openness that, in turn, can create a relaxed attitude around the truth that we all die. [Editor’s Note: maybe now’s a good time for that SOS session.]
But how did our culture become so afraid of death? Many within the death positivity movement contend that our psychological distance has been bred by our physical distance. Even a generation ago, most people died at home, with family. With the advent of medical advancement, modern death usually takes place in a hospital, where most of us don’t have to witness it, the body then swiftly taken away and prepared for burial by a professional. Our diminishing encounters with the dead have given us little opportunity to experience, discuss, or make peace with death—which can inhibit our actual lives.
Funerals offer a touchstone for mourners to gain closure, but the expensive and difficult task of planning a funeral is all too often foisted upon loved ones during a time of shock. Preparing—and arranging—for death not only alleviates stress on those we care about but allows for a funeral to be personal and authentic, which in turn offers friends and family “the ritual necessary to weave the tear in the fabric of our lives back together,” according to Rubin.
I certainly needed to make peace with death; I’ve long-held the trauma of my father’s death and cultivated a certain anxiety around anything that even smacked of mortality. As I settled into the death café in Rubin’s home, a plate of fruit and cookies in my lap, it was strange to identify that this was perhaps the first conversation I had ever had in earnest on the topic. The conversation is relaxed—Rubin approaches it with a sort of well-timed humor that doesn’t so much make light of a heavy subject, but eases us into the real substance of the conversation.
The small group that has gathered at the death café all share stories of illness and of death, of preparation, and spiritual beliefs that provide a roadmap to personal death positivity. As we talked late into the afternoon, I noticed that in every story of death, there were the threads of life. After all, as the death positivity movement stresses: death is a part of life.
Eventually, I cleared my throat and spoke for the first time in years about my father’s death. Tears welled in my eyes as I outlined the kind of man he was—creative, intelligent, capable, kind—words that fail to measure up to the actuality of a person. Speaking to this small group felt overdue, honest, and deeply right.
In the weeks after my death café visit, a feeling of memento mori washed over me. Even the most mundane days were imbued with charm gained by acknowledging that every moment is finite. Stuck in traffic, I felt attuned to the beautiful cast of a shadow across the mesa or the thrum of music from the open window of an idling car. In moments of frustration, anxiety, anger, I still managed a simple appreciation. In effect, the simple nod at death that death cafés provided me has been enough to propel me into a real sense of presence.
As American author Terry Tempest Williams wrote, “Our fear of death enslaves us to the illusion that we will live forever.” Death will come for us all, eventually, but for now, if we can remain present for it, life is right here.
Artwork by KYLE BECK