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Let’s talk about death

Society’s last taboo, discussion about how we might want to die is becoming increasingly common – and it can hep us frame our choices for positive living. 

Words Jai Breitnauer

We’re used to the working bee, we’re familiar with the stich n’ bitch, almost all of us will have tried a book club – but have you heard of Death Café? A new type of group get together, these sessions began springing up across the UK in 2011, the brain-child of 42-year-old Londoner and father-of-two, Jon Underwood.

“I’m frustrated by Western society’s approach to death,” Jon says. “We are blind to it, yet it’s a fundamental part of what makes us human, something we all share.”

Jon – who has dedicated his life to supporting those in the final stages of theirs – worries that through violent movies and video games, we consume an unhealthy and terrifying brand of death, yet never face up to the reality of our own. The point of Death Cafe, inspired by the Swiss ‘Café Mortalis’, is to encourage the healthy and the living to talk about death – to intellectualise their own death and the experience of those around them, beyond the practicalities of wills and funeral choices. Questions like, what is a good death? Does accepting that life ends make it better? How does embracing our own mortality affect others? Are all common themes at Death Café, where emotionally challenging topics are without taboo.

There is certainly strong evidence to support a need to be more open about death. A recent survey carried out by Natcen for the European organisation Dying Matters found that 68 percent of people say they are comfortable talking about death, yet only 29 percent of us have actively discussed it with our nearest and dearest. Jon believes this is in part because society doesn’t provide a place for discussing death. His hope is that Death Cafe will become that place – and it’s certainly taken off.

“We have about 70 people running Death Cafe’s across the globe. There have been over 200 events so far. It’s a social franchise – they’re always free and open to everyone.”

“It’s an opportunity to bring death into focus,” says Jon. “To help us realise we are alive now and use our time effectively. I want people to live positively and not have regrets.”

In New Zealand the first Death Café was launched in the capital in March 2014, but you’ll find regular meets in Wellington, Titirangi, and Warkworth. Red Beach based end of life midwife Carol Wales launched a Death Café in Westmere, Auckland, earlier this year.

“Centuries ago, there would be someone in a village – like a midwife – who would sit with the dying and provide comfort,” she says about her career. “Modern end of life doula’s are still carving their own niche, and Death Cafe is helping me realise there is more to facilitating a good death than simply being on hand at the end. Supporting people who want to talk about death, come to terms with mortality, make end of life plans and use that to embrace the life they live right now, that’s fulfilling and important work.”

Jon Underwood believes that coming to terms with death is essential to providing good care for the elderly and terminally ill. “Research has shown that, among carers, the more personal anxiety they have about death, the lower the quality of care they provide. The way we approach death as a society – or don’t – has wider social implications.”

He reiterates that Death Café, which can be held in a local café or a hall hired specially for the event, is not a support group for the terminally ill or grieving but is aimed at those who are in full health, who want to live a complete and joyous life.

“It’s an opportunity to bring death into focus,” says Jon. “To help us realise we are alive now and use our time effectively. I want people to live positively and not have regrets.”

To find out more about your local Death Café meet, or how to start your own, visit www.deathcafe.com

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