The walk to the Courtyard last Wednesday was more complicated than the last time I described it. I won’t bore you with the details but the short cut across the car park I usually take has been blocked off. They’re in the process of building a by-pass. It was a warm evening and rushing to make up the time meant that when I arrived I had to discreetly wipe beads of sweat off the counter as I ordered my coffee.
I know. Why order coffee when I was sweating buckets? Well, I was going to a meeting of the Death Cafe. What else could I drink?
We weren’t in our usual room either. I had to carry my coffee upstairs to the Arts Studio, trying not to drip into the cup as I went.
But it was all worth it. Two hours of inspiring and uplifting conversation followed. Partly it was the sharing of difficult memories. But that really was only part of it.
Early in the meeting a key question came up yet again. Why, if we told people where we were going, did so many recoil in horror at the very idea?
We didn’t come to any firm conclusion about that, but it did feel such a shame that so many people were missing out on a great evening of laughter and insight.
I know poets, for instance, have grappled with the problem of death ever since people began writing poems. In the past two views of mortality were strongly connected with images of death such as skulls and tombs: memento mori and carpe diem. Each view of mortality has a different take on morality, interestingly enough: ‘Gather ye rose buds while ye may’ (Herrick) versus ‘be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin’ (translated from the Vulgate‘s Latin rendering of Ecclesiasticus 7:40). Ode to his Coy Mistress, Andrew Marvell’s masterpiece of lyric poetry, ironically explores these two responses of his time.
The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hew
Sits on thy skin like morning glew,
And while thy willing Soul transpires
At every pore with instant Fires,
Now let us sport us while we may . . .
The balance is heavily tilted here towards ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,’ but the menace of the grave, the reminder of death, is not disguised. He manages to look both possibilities squarely in the face. Shira Wolosky has written a brilliant critique of this feat in The Art of Poetry pages 70-79. She states:
The poem offers, then, not one, but two topoi [themes]: the overt “carpe diem” and a subversive remembrance of death inscribed into the text alongside the call to seduction. . . . . . Both topoi are urgent calls, calls to weigh your life to see what, in its short compass of time and space, you really can accomplish; what, in its short span, really has value; what you should be striving for.
We dug deep into what that same dilemma meant for our society, if anything. Our children don’t often die before us as all too many did in Marvell’s time. It’s easier to ignore death. Too much of the time we seem to be in denial, distracting ourselves with all the glitter at our disposal, and there’s a lot of it. That may be why the idea of a Death Cafe seems so repellant.
But if we do not face the inevitability of death, we wondered, how can we make the most of our lives? This distracted discounting of our destination may have consequences beyond our individual selves. Maybe the denial of personal death is echoed in and contributes to the widespread denial of what we are doing to the planet, and therefore ultimately to ourselves.
Part of it, we felt, may be the short term perspective evolution has hard-wired us with, which reality requires that we transcend. But taking the long view is hard, though not impossible we felt. We’re hard-wired for that kind of effort as well, but it’s something we have to consciously decide to do and stick with.
The fact that we are living so much longer makes it harder to take the long view: death seems too far off to most of us a lot of the time. Paradoxically though, our longer lives don’t mean we can afford to be less concerned about death. We should take it more seriously. There are more of us exploiting the surface of this planet than ever, so we are damaging it more. When the time comes, as it must for all of is, we can also expect a much longer and slower acquaintanceship with death, both our own and that of others’ close to us, than the plague or death in childbirth ever allowed.
There’s yet another obstacle to full awareness, as we explored.
While our longer lives, our global connectedness, and the global challenges we face, make it imperative we also face the destructive consequences of our mindless consumerism and consider the well-being of all life on our planetary home, we are wired strongly to give priority to the family, the tribe and more recently the nation, and find it harder to widen our embrace to include those who fall outside those boundaries. We felt this has to change. A tipping point has to come where the world of humanity tilts over into compassion for the world as whole.
Putting our heads under the sands of time as though its passing had no consequences is not the answer. Maybe coming to proper terms with our personal death could enable us to live in a way that cherishes all life, not just our own.
We all felt that these were inspiring not depressing thoughts. There are Death Cafes in many places. It might be worth your while finding out where your nearest one meets and give it a try.
I walked out into the mild darkness of that autumn evening with a new spring in my step. And that pun is just a mild reminder of the jokes that flew around the table as we debated death.