The Bishop and Death by Thomas Rowlandson
'The Bishop and Death' by Thomas Rowlandson

Towards the end of Philip Roth’s 2006 novel Everyman, the unnamed protagonist visits the graveyard where his deceased parents lie. There amongst the tombstones, he meets a gravedigger squaring away the corners of a fresh grave. He is surprised to see the man at work, having thought that graves were dug by machines. The two begin a conversation, with the gravedigger providing a detailed and prideful description of his work. Our hero learns that not only was the gravedigger the one who dug his parents’ graves, but in all likelihood will be the one to dig his as well. The gravedigger’s frank words raise his spirits, and he comes away with a newfound appreciation of life’s finality. ‘I want to thank you,’ he tells the gravedigger. ‘You couldn’t have made things more concrete. It’s a good education for an older person’.

A hyperawareness of death is often a symptom of disease outbreaks. Epidemic-centered works such as Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year (bubonic plague), Camus’ The Plague (bubonic plague again), and Roth’s Nemesis (poliomyelitis) all focus on mortality and its effect on the living. Roth’s conclusion in Everyman that death and its processes can be demystified through conversation is indeed a good education, and not only for an older person. But such a conversation need not take place on death’s door beside slabs of severed topsoil with the scent of freshly uncovered clay in the air. It is possible, even preferable, for it to take place accompanied with tea, cake, and, perhaps most importantly of all, laughter. Such is the notion behind Death Café, the social franchise designed to lead death from the dank confines of morbid taboo into the light as an essential experience of life.

It was Briton Jon Underwood who, drawing on the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz (specifically Crettaz’s 2010 book Cafés mortels: sortir la mort du silence [Death Cafés: Bring Death out From Silence]), launched Death Cafés in the iteration they are found today: informal gatherings with no objectives beyond familiarizing and normalizing the idea of death. Death Cafés are not counselling services or grief sessions, and they promote no specific agenda. Their self-proclaimed purpose is only “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives”.

That Death Cafés are experiencing a growing global appeal is not surprising. Even before Covid-19, governments were needing to address the societal challenges incurred by the new demography of death, an epidemiological trend signifying that people are beginning to die at older ages and over longer periods of time. According to Dr. Naomi Richards, who, along with the Wellcome Trust, conducted in 2018 the first international study of Death Cafés, “there is a drive by governments and policymakers to address the challenges of ageing populations, and growing levels of need for end-of-life care.” With governments promoting the preparedness of individuals, communities and institutions, Richards says “the idea of a Death Café seems to resonate with policies in many countries which encourage ‘having the conversation’ as a way to increase planning for death.”

Awareness through discussion has proved a popular concept: in nine years, more than 11,000 Death Cafés have been held in 72 countries. Richards’ study found that “the Death Café movement has spread from the UK to North America, Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. Outside of Europe and North America, [they] have sometimes been organized by migrants, or by people with strong links to, or recently returned from, the Anglosphere.”

Upon the globalization of Covid-19, the idea of death (and how to avoid it) became the focus of the world. Predictably, many governments pivoted towards the terminology of war – death-rate, mortality, shelter in place, lockdown. Society became a battleground: our hospitals the front-line, our homes the trenches and foxholes where we sheltered from attack. There were clear winners and losers. Victory meant flattening the curve and staving off death, while the ultimate goal perversely hovered around the idea of zero deaths. Asking society to aspire to such an unobtainable goal is fruitless (even for “eradicated” diseases, zero is an impossible number: in 2019, there were some 500 cases of wild and vaccine-derived poliomyelitis, and the bubonic plague takes around 650 lives each year), and only serves to further the influence of death denial by ignoring the conversation about how death affects the living.

There is little to distinguish an avoidance of death-talk from denying its reality. In his book The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker warns that ignoring death “fuels the pursuit of greed and power, cultivating an inhumanity at the core of our social arrangements.” It amounts to little more than procrastination, Becker argues, and allows those with special interests – both medical and corporate – to step in and control the narrative over how and what death (particularly “good” death) should look like. Costco brand coffins, funeral packages and doctors acting as bedside end-of-life guidance counselors are all side-effects Death Cafés are attempting to navigate.

While there is some skepticism about the efficacy of online Death Cafés (researcher Solveiga Zibaite with the Glasgow End of Life Studies Group warns that maintaining a free-flowing, open discussion needed for a successful Death Café can be difficult to manage in an on-line environment), the gap they seek to fill in a pandemic stricken world is critical to regaining sovereignty over our own mortality.

There is a sense that, as our technology advances, we have increasing control over our inevitable outcomes. Of course death is undesirable, particularly death from Covid-19 which for so many was accompanied by painful separation from loved ones. But it is unavoidable, a hurdle too high even for the most enthusiastic to vault. Covid-19 may have raised our collective awareness of death and the frailty of life, but also our desire to overcome the unavoidable conclusion to life. Despite, or perhaps in part due to, our daily exposure to death-rate numbers and lives reduced to wavering graphs, death remains something we are psychologically or societally unprepared for. By ignoring death, or turning it into an assailable enemy, we turn mortal to morbid, allowing death to become, in the words of philosopher William James, “the worm which eats through all our usual springs of delight.”

Richards believes that societies may be finally catching up to what Death Cafés have been advocating for nearly a decade. “Cultural attempts to generate lay responses to death and dying outside of the dominant healthcare structures ultimately face strong pressures of convergence towards them…these cultural interventions can exist both within these structures and outside of them.”

Richards’ description of Death Cafés as a “talking revolution”, inspires hope that societies will begin to act on a growing collective desire for sovereignty in death. With enough open conversations, we may begin to remove the morbidity from mortality and see that acceptance of death is not synonymous with encouraging it.

That death is a simultaneously ordinary yet individually unique experience is a sentiment from time immemorial. From the late 15th-century play Everyman (Roth’s identical title was no coincidence), comes perhaps the first great line in English drama: “Oh Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind”. Death Cafés want to relegate that surprise to the past, to talk their way through to transforming a morbid taboo into an experience of life.