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Posts Tagged ‘Death Cafe’

As a regular attender at our local Death Cafe in Hereford I found the following Guardian article an irresistible read. It puts my interest in the subject into an intriguing but not entirely flattering context. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link. Another article of similar interest – It was an incredibly enriching day – can be found at the following link.

Death is hot right now, and upbeat gatherings in cemeteries are just a small part of the trend. One of the chief desires of our time is to turn everything we touch into a reflection of who we are, how we live and how we want others to view us – and death is no exception. Once merely the inevitable, death has become a new bourgeois rite of passage that, much like weddings or births, must now be minutely planned and personalised. Not since the Victorian era’s fetishisation of death, with its all-black attire, elaborate mourning jewellery and seances, has death been so appealingly packaged. Every death must be in some way special and on-trend. Finally, the hipster can die as he lived. . .

For people . . .  more worried about the terrifying prospect of dying alone, there are now solutions (or at least partial ones). You can hire a death doula, a trained professional who will assist at the end of life in the same catch-all manner that birth doulas are there during labour. You can request a home funeral, in which your friends and family pay their respects to your corpse in the comfort of your living room, with every detail as carefully planned as a wedding. And before that day arrives, you can discuss the facts of death with like-minded souls at a Death Cafe, a meeting of the global movement started by Jon Underwood in 2011 (who died last summer of acute promyelocytic leukaemia) as a way for people to gather and reflect on mortality.

One of the people pioneering this new way of approaching death is Caitlin Doughty, a young, Los Angeles-based mortician who looks like a lost member of the Addams Family. She has written a bestselling memoir, hosts a YouTube series called Ask a Mortician and has founded a “death acceptance collective” called The Order of the Good Death, whose youthful members promote positive approaches to mortality.

“It’s OK to be openly interested in death practices,” Doughty told me while driving through LA one afternoon last autumn. “It makes you an engaged human who cares about all aspects of life. Ghettoising it as an interest particular to goths, weirdos or people obsessed with murder creates a dearth of honest conversation about death in the western world.”

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Grave & Courtyard v2

I went to the DeathCafe by car this time. A musician friend of mine had expressed an interest in attending, so he popped into our place for soup, then we drove together to the Courtyard. He seemed as fascinated by death as I am, a rare meeting of minds.

We dropped the car in a side road to save parking expenses. As we walked back to the venue we spotted another frequenter of the Death Cafe, someone previously connected with mental health as I was. We headed together straight for the bar to get our drinks, and amazingly there was yet another member of the group waiting at the bar for her giant sized mocha. As we chatted I noticed the facilitator from the local hospice passing behind us to check out the room. It was going to be another big meeting again.

The man in the hat turned up next. We exchanged greetings. We left him at the bar once we got our drinks and headed to the ground floor meeting room. It was the one we all liked best. It is easily accessible and you don’t get the full blast of the theatre performances coming through the wall.

As always it’s impossible to summarise all the topics we covered in two hours of energised discussion, spiced with humour and laced with sadness.

What I remember most, perhaps understandably, is that I was not the only one to be coming to terms with a body no longer responding energetically to the demands of the mind. There was at least one other person there with the same issue. We kicked that topic around for a while before the focus moved on to other things.

Inevitably, I suppose, we came back at one point to the big question: what happens when we die? Do we circle back through the loop of reincarnation, do we pass on to a journey through the next world, or do we simply black out.

In Gustave Doré’s illustrations for the fourth circle of Dante’s hell, the weights are huge money bags. (For source of image see link.)

Some weren’t sure but worked on a variation of Pascal’s wager. As Wikipedia explains: ‘Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas they stand to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell).’ A strong prompt for a pause of thought, even if with me you don’t share a belief in the medieval concept of hell so grimly portrayed in Dante’s Inferno. Some in the group had decided that it was just a happier place to be, to assume that there was a life beyond death, even though they couldn’t prove it.

Others, including my friend and I, were pretty clear we believed there was something after death, and it was a source of comfort and even joy, one of us quoting the words of Bahá’u’lláh in support of this:

O SON OF THE SUPREME!
I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?

Yes, we would grieve at the loss of a relative or friend, because they were no longer with us, but this pain would be tempered by the knowledge (yes, we used that word) they were in a better place.

At least one person doubted there was anything beyond death while another, who had a strong sense at times of having been here before, has placed her money on coming back again and again.

I didn’t have the chance to share my own thoughts in detail on that one. Though the Bahá’í Faith teaches that we do not come back, there are examples not easily dismissed of evidence that points in the direction of some kind of knowledge of a previous life. I’ve dealt with most of that in detail in previous posts. One thing I’ve recently read in Fontana’s excellent book on the after life suggests that returning spirits say that some people ask to come back and some are sent back. Given the rigour with which he examines evidence, I feel I need to give this idea due weight. It needs an explanation of some kind. The evidence needs taking seriously: though we may explain it in different ways, it should not be ignored.

As part of that discussion, the problem with how to deal with the pain of grief came up. Many of us had noticed that some seem broken by grief and never really recover, while others pick themselves up and, when the intense pain of the first period of grief is over, begin to engage in activities that lead to a more positive life. The idea put forward by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) was briefly explored: there is pain, which is inescapable, and suffering, which is the avoidable layer that we add to pain by our own take on it.

I couldn’t resist plugging my own panacea for pain and other uncomfortable experiences: reflection. I won’t bang on about it here at any length as I’ve explored it over and over on this blog already, except to say that developing the ability to step back from the contents of our consciousness, whether that be intrusive and negative thoughts or strong feelings of pain, enables us to contain them, rather than repress them or be their victim. Containment allow us to explore them safely and decide how to deal with them constructively.

As we walked back to the car together my friend said, with no prompting from me,’That was great. I really enjoyed it.’

The next meeting of the Hereford Death Cafe is on Wednesday 18th October at 18.00. See you there maybe?

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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Grave & Courtyard v2

Last week, I walked through soft rain at a brisk pace to get to the venue on time. I was sweating slightly as I walked to the counter to get my coffee. That’s the trouble with waterproof coats. They trap the heat as well as keeping out the rain.

As I ordered my coffee the Death Cafe facilitator indicated we’d switched rooms, but at least we had a room this week. We went upstairs together to a room tucked away in the far back corner. Apparently we’d been asked to keep our voices down a bit so the audience in the next door studio cinema weren’t disturbed in their enjoyment by any thoughts of death.

She went downstairs to direct people to the room. I stayed and sipped my coffee enjoying the silence and the opportunity to cool off a bit.

By five-past-six the room was still empty. Then, to my relief the Buddhist lady came in. By ten past no one else had arrived except the facilitator. In fact, it wasn’t until 6.30 that the fourth person arrived fresh from her yoga class.

Even so, what we lacked in numbers was made up for in intensity, depth and excitement. It was another great two hours of exploration of death-related issues from almost every possible angle. We had a Buddhist, a Bahá’í, a humanist (well, at least, that’s my label for her) and someone still searching, someone ‘on a quest’ as we put it later.

We roamed across such themes as our interconnectedness, the Buddhist and Bahá’í seeing this as something spiritual. The humanist agreed with the basic idea but not its spiritual dimension while the searcher was not completely sure.

The thorny issue of science and religion came up, and science’s dismissal of any idea of an afterlife. We pulled in references to Ken Wilber and his book  The Marriage of Sense & Soul. I’ve dealt with his powerful arguments elsewhere so I won’t dwell on him too long. For example he forcefully argues, science has invaded spirituality and the arts (page 56):

. . .[T]he I and the WE were colonised by the IT. ..  . . . Full and flush with stunning victories, empirical science became scientism,  the belief that there is no reality save that revealed by science, and no truth save that which science delivers. . . . Consciousness itself, and the mind and heart and soul of humankind, could not be seen with a microscope, a telescope, a cloud chamber, a photographic plate, and so all were pronounced epiphenomenal at best, illusory at worst. . . . . Art and morals and contemplation and spirit were all demolished by the scientific bull in the china shop of consciousness. And that was the disaster of modernity. . . . it was a thoroughly flatland holism. It was not a holism that actually included all the interior realms of the I and the WE (including the eye of contemplation). . . . [I] as the reduction of all of the value spheres to monological Its perceived by the eye of the flesh that, more than anything else, constituted the disaster of modernity.

Margaret Donaldson also came into the mix with her brilliant book, Human Minds: an exploration, which addresses a closely related question (page 264 – my emphasis):

The very possibility of emotional development that is genuinely on a par with – as high as, level with – the development of reason is only seldom entertained. So long as this possibility is neglected, then if reason by itself is sensed as inadequate where else can one go but back? Thus there arises a regressive tendency, a desire to reject reason and all that was best in the Enlightenment, a yearning for some return to the mythic, the magical, the marvellous in old senses of these terms. This is very dangerous; but it has the advantage that it is altogether easier than trying to move forward into something genuinely new.

Now we have clearly seen that the cultivation of the advanced value-sensing mode [e.g. in meditation] is not of itself new. It has ancient roots. What would be new would be a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together. Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?

And that’s just a small sample of the invigorating ground we covered.

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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Grave & Courtyard v2

Usually I stroll to the Death Cafe from home after an early dinner. This time the situation was a bit more hectic, which might have been a sign of things to come.

I had spent too long in town and was dashing to the Courtyard to grab a sandwich before the six o’clock start. I got there just before 5.30. The reception area and the cafe was buzzing. The queue at the counter wasn’t too bad so I got my order in and my cappuccino reasonably quickly, though there was a bit of a crisis when fake news came through that they had run out of brown bread. I hate white for reasons I won’t bore you with right now. Anyway panic over when they established I’d apparently got there in time to catch the last slices of brown.

By ten to six I’d finished my sandwich and picked up my coffee to take to the meeting room. That’s where the problems started. I pulled open the door to see a room full of clothing, presumably costumes of some kind. I caught up with a member of staff who said the meeting was on the mezzanine floor. I carried my coffee carefully up the stairs and checked out the room at that level – crammed with people I didn’t know definitely not talking about death. Not there then.

On the way back to the stairs I saw the white hair of one of our clan bobbing up the stairs.

‘It’s not on the mezzanine,’ he said. ‘I don’t know where it is.’

I decided to check with the reception desk.

‘It is on that floor,’ the girl at the till told me. ‘It’s past the cafe.’

On the way back to the stairs for the second time I met another death enthusiast.

‘Where’s the meeting?’ she asked clutching her coffee and cake.

‘Follow me,’ I asserted confidently. We trekked up the stairs. She waited with her coffee and cake at a nearby table where I placed my coffee as well for safety while I checked out the room, which turned out to be either non-existent or a Platform 9¾ problem. I opted for non-existent and went back to the table where we sat for a while, she nibbling her cake and me scanning the stairs between sips of almost cold coffee for any hints about where the meeting was going to be.

After about five minutes, I decided it was time to go back to reception again. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw a familiar face talking to what looked like the manager. She didn’t look happy.

‘So we haven’t got a room tonight?’ she probed.

‘I’m really sorry but demand was so high today we’ve had to use every available space,’ he flustered.

‘What do we do then?’ she asked with surprising politeness.

‘Well, there’s a table upstairs on the gallery floor with enough chairs.’

As we could only just hear him speak against the background noise we were not pleased about this, but there was nothing else we could do.

We trooped upstairs again but went one floor higher this time.

Two tables were at the stairwell where the noise was loudest.

We pulled them together and surrounded them with chairs, trying to make sure we would all be as close together as possible.

After a few moments more people trickled in and we got ourselves seated.

I was pleased to see the lady from the train had come. I gave a full account of our first meeting in a previous post. She was someone with a keen interest in consciousness and spirituality.

And there were two new faces as well – and they were young. I was happy to see that as it would make it easier to answer a question I’ve been asked more than once when talking about the Death Cafe: ‘Are there any young people there?’ Brilliant! I could now say an emphatic ‘Yes!’

It was hard going at first to make ourselves heard against the background noise, most of it caused by young children waiting for their programme to start in the main theatre. At least the noise would drop once the doors opened and they went in.

‘When someone is dementing, do their family go through a grieving process even before they die?’ This was an entirely unexpected question from someone so young, one of the new arrivals. Her voice was too quiet at first so she had to  repeat what she said.

That set the first ball rolling. Sadly, the white-haired man I mentioned earlier really struggled as he had a hearing problem. Turning up his hearing aid was no solution as it simply made the shouting from below even more of a problem. He wasn’t the only one by any means who was struggling. Most of us had a hard time hearing someone on the other side of the table.

‘It’s not the Death Cafe tonight,’ I quipped, ‘more like the Deaf Cafe.’ It seemed to ease the tension slightly, and fortunately the man with the hearing aid couldn’t hear me. (My apologies to David Lodge for stealing his joke: he published a novel in 2008 called Deaf Sentence about a man struggling with hearing loss.)

From dementia we slid into DMT because the topic had shifted to whether the mind is affected by the brain or somehow separate from it and whether we could somehow access a transcendent realm. I had to do some research when I got home as I’d never heard of DMT.

It was mentioned in the meeting as a pineal hormone with transliminal effects. Wikipedia writes:

N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT) is a powerful psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of other psychedelic tryptamines such as 4-AcO-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, 5-HO-DMT, psilocybin (4-PO-DMT), and psilocin (4-HO-DMT).

Most of that went over my head. The next bit was more accessible.

Historically, it has been consumed by indigenous Amazonian cultures in the form of ayahuasca for divinatory and healing purposes. It was first synthesised in 1931, and in 1946, microbiologist Oswaldo Gonçalves de Lima discovered its natural presence in plants. In the 1960s, it was detected in mammalian organisms as well.

I can’t find support for the pineal connection (for example):

And although Strassman clearly states that his ideas about DMT and the pineal gland “are not proven”, many people have accepted them as fact. As of June 2010, there is currently no scientific evidence that the pineal gland produces DMT, much less any evidence for the more far-out speculations that Strassman makes about DMT being a chemical modulator of the human soul. When Strassman examined the pineal glands from “about ten” human corpse brains, there was nary a trace of DMT to be found in them. This doesn’t invalidate his theory, since DMT is metabolized quickly, and none of the corpse brains were fresh-frozen. Further tests on fresh-frozen brains could be done. Someday there may be evidence that DMT is produced in the pineal gland, but that day has not yet arrived.

It did remind me though of Aldous Huxley’s work on the ‘doors of perception’ and Stanislav Grof’s on LSD.

Just as the other new comer was about to speak the loudspeaker blared out a fifteen minute warning about when people should make a move to take their seats.

She had to start again. She picked up on what the lady from the train had shared about Faith, Physics & Psychology concerning various books such as those by Fritjof Kapra and David Bohm. She explained her deep interest in matters of the mind, consciousness and spirituality, something which was clearly shared by others present including me.

Somehow, I have no idea now of how, we moved onto exploring virtual selves in this age of the internet and social media. Would we be mourned after we die by other FB users who had never met us? Does excessive reliance on social media cut us off from real contact with other people? We concluded that social media, just like all other leaps forward in terms of tools and technology throughout human history, was a mixed blessing – just like fire, which we can use to keep warm in winter and cook our food or to burn down a neighbour’s hut if he has upset us.

At about this point the blaring began again to summon all the noisy ones downstairs to their seats. Bliss. Silence.

We had a long exploration then of whether there is a soul, a spiritual dimension, a mind independent of the body – all my favourite stuff. I was astonished to find that someone did not agree that agnosticism is the only rational stance if you rely on reason alone. To believe there is or there is not a God is an act of faith.

‘Well, that’s not how I see it?’ a different voice chipped in.

‘How do you see it then?’ I asked trying to hide my shock at this denial of the obvious.

‘I’m not quite sure. I think it’s more a question of acceptance.’

I’m still not quite sure what she meant by that but we went onto explore whether truth was on a ‘huge hill,’ as John Donne expressed it, and we’re all on our different paths towards it or is there a better metaphor.

I think there was general agreement in the end with the other part of Donne’s position as expressed in his third satire (line 77): ‘doubt wisely.’

Whatever else, we all felt at the end of the evening, as we said our goodbyes, that it had been a great experience which we had all enjoyed enormously.

And I’ll end on my usual challenge. Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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Just another few days to go before the next meeting of the Death Cafe on 15 March from 6-8 pm, so am re-posting this account of the last meeting I attended in February. If you are close by it would be good to see you there.

As I walked towards the counter for my coffee I noticed three or four people talking to the lady who facilitates the Death Cafe. That looked promising. She passed me on her way to the room as I reached the counter and we exchanged greetings.

After a few minutes waiting for my coffee to be created, I began to have my doubts. They seemed to be quite happy standing at the counter chatting like a group if friends in a pub. I must have been mistaken, I thought.

I took my coffee and balanced it carefully back to the meeting room.

My pessimism was unjustified. They must have just been waiting for someone’s brew to finish. All four people joined us at the table after a short passage of time.

Brilliant!

Unlike last time there was no lack of participants for the Death Cafe at the Courtyard Theatre in Hereford this month. In fact, I think this time was a record compared with all my other experiences: we had ten people round the table, including four complete new comers, for our usual exhilarating exploration of the meaning of life under the shadow of death.

Some of the questions we dealt with this time were hardly existential. If you are not using an undertaker what do you do with the body in-between the post mortem/moment of death and the burial/cremation? Covering it with bags of frozen peas did not seem an ideal solution but none of us could come up with a better one. It was suggested that Soul Midwives could probably advise on better methods.

Another was, can you bury two bodies in one small plot, including your back garden? At least one person felt you could, but it was pointed out that this might reduce the value of the property somewhat in the event of its eventual sale.

I also could not resist sharing how inspiring I had found the recent funeral service I attended which had been organised entirely by the family and friends of the deceased (see link for full account). They had not relied on anyone else for input: there was no priest, no undertaker, no hearse. Instead, the coffin was carried to the graveside in a brightly coloured camper van, a vehicle perfectly suited to the tastes of the occupant.

At other points we criss-crossed over more predictable territory: near death experiences, Psi (I’ll be coming back to those issues in the next week or so), ghosts, exorcism, healing services to quieten the dead, and we debated whether it was possible to be sure whether there was an afterlife or there wasn’t (more of that too soon).

We all noted that Dying Matters Awareness week will run from 8-14 May, and we will be keeping our eyes open for possible events locally.

And I’ll end on my usual challenge. Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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Grave & Courtyard v2

As I walked towards the counter for my coffee I noticed three or four people talking to the lady who facilitates the Death Cafe. That looked promising. She passed me on her way to the room as I reached the counter and we exchanged greetings.

After a few minutes waiting for my coffee to be created, I began to have my doubts. They seemed to be quite happy standing at the counter chatting like a group if friends in a pub. I must have been mistaken, I thought.

I took my coffee and balanced it carefully back to the meeting room.

My pessimism was unjustified. They must have just been waiting for someone’s brew to finish. All four people joined us at the table after a short passage of time.

Brilliant!

Unlike last time there was no lack of participants for the Death Cafe at the Courtyard Theatre in Hereford this month. In fact, I think this time was a record compared with all my other experiences: we had ten people round the table, including four complete new comers, for our usual exhilarating exploration of the meaning of life under the shadow of death.

Some of the questions we dealt with this time were hardly existential. If you are not using an undertaker what do you do with the body in-between the post mortem/moment of death and the burial/cremation? Covering it with bags of frozen peas did not seem an ideal solution but none of us could come up with a better one. It was suggested that Soul Midwives could probably advise on better methods.

Another was, can you bury two bodies in one small plot, including your back garden? At least one person felt you could, but it was pointed out that this might reduce the value of the property somewhat in the event of its eventual sale.

I also could not resist sharing how inspiring I had found the recent funeral service I attended which had been organised entirely by the family and friends of the deceased (see link for full account). They had not relied on anyone else for input: there was no priest, no undertaker, no hearse. Instead, the coffin was carried to the graveside in a brightly coloured camper van, a vehicle perfectly suited to the tastes of the occupant.

At other points we criss-crossed over more predictable territory: near death experiences, Psi (I’ll be coming back to those issues in the next week or so), ghosts, exorcism, healing services to quieten the dead, and we debated whether it was possible to be sure whether there was an afterlife or there wasn’t (more of that too soon).

We all noted that Dying Matters Awareness week will run from 8-14 May, and we will be keeping our eyes open for possible events locally.

And I’ll end on my usual challenge. Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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feb-17-death-cafeJust another week to go before the next meeting of the Death Cafe on 15 February from 6-8 pm, so just re-posting this account of the last meeting I attended in January. If you are close by it would be good to see you there.

It took longer than usual to get my coffee at the Courtyard prior to the Death Cafe meeting last Wednesday. There were far more people at the counter than usual, most of them in my age group. The thought crossed my mind that we might be going to get a record attendance at the meeting, though there was no one in the queue I recognised.

I finally got my cappuccino just in time to make it across to the meeting room by a touch after six o’clock. As I approached I could see someone struggling with the wedge to make the door stay open. The room was dark. This did not bode well.

Holding my coffee perilously in my hand I unsuccessfully attempted to help with the wedge. ‘Better sit down before I drop this on the carpet,’ I thought. I switched the light on as I passed.

As I was arranging my coat on the back of the chair someone else came in before promptly disappearing again for a coffee.

By the time I’d sat down and made myself comfortable there were four of us in the room – the smallest number of people so far at any meeting I had attended. Even so, yet again I was energised by the range of issues we dealt with, some of them in considerable depth.

Maybe I was primed to enjoy this meeting whatever the numbers or the topics. I’d had about a fortnight of immersion in the tragic and death-dominated lives of the Brontës. Also within the last week I’ve had news of the deaths of two people I knew quite well – both much younger than me. Memento mori has been the flavour of the year so far.

This time the ground we covered included whether we preferred burial to cremation, whether we would want to be resuscitated or not, what did the idea of our own end make us think about, whether there is an after life or not and did we mind, did it matter what kind of funeral takes place after we have died, where have the supportive communities of old disappeared to, should we feel responsible in some way for creating the conditions that have made possible so-called ISIS and its killings, and how did we feel about the fact that our society is still letting so many people die.

Despite what they sound like, such topics don’t lead to one-foot-in-the-grave-type discussions. Unexpected positives often emerge.

The community question, for example, flagged up the existence of a promising initiative in Sandwell — Compassionate Community:

A Compassionate Community is a community that provides support to someone who is dying. The community could be family, neighbours, local organisations, a faith group, local businesses or people living in a particular area. It could be some or all of these.

People in a Compassionate Community help care for a dying person through small acts of compassion, supporting the dying person during their end of life, often enabling them to die well and, if possible, at home.

Palliative care professionals, such as doctors and care workers, are also a vital part of a Compassionate Community. However, to provide the best possible end of life care to someone they need extra support from the patient’s community, particularly if the patient wishes to die at home.

By working and pulling together a Compassionate Community can help a dying person, and their family and friends, get the support and care they need, helping them to deal with dying and death and the subsequent bereavement and loss of those left behind.

There are plans to test out a pilot project in Hereford apparently.

Even the worst sounding topics can trigger potentially life-enhancing deliberations.

Pondering on what our deaths made us think about, we delved into the problem of how do we decide what are the most important things to spend our time on. Does it have to be something useful? Can’t it just be something joyous and enriching like a trip to the opera? Would watching a murder mystery on television count as worthwhile enough? What about a walk in the country? We all probably felt that the arts and a connection with nature were worthwhile in themselves and that doing things that benefited others definitely qualified as a good use of our last days. Interestingly, in the context of our discussion at that point, no one mentioned using our time to come to terms with death even though that’s what we all have said is a crucially important task in life as a whole. Perhaps we all thought it too obvious to mention!

As usual the time flew by and the meeting was almost over. We found ourselves wondering at the end how we could attract more people to these meetings. I’m still pondering that one.

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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