Who wants to live forever? Musings on the death café …

A dreaded sunny day, so I’ll meet you at the Death café

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Last Saturday, follower/friend/associate/whatever Ben and I attended Chester’s second Death Café in the comfort of Funerals from the Heart on Brook St. The first one happened last year, but I only saw the poster after the event during an aimless wander around the Garden Quarter. The concept appealed to my sense of the bizarre and otherworldly. We were greeted warmly into the small group containing a nurse, students and others. “So you’re Shitchester..” said our host Sue Barsky-Reid.

Sue is a psychotherapist who founded the first Death Café with her son in Hackney in 2011. Since then there have been 720 pop up cafés over Europe, America and Australasia “I’m interested in death because I’m getting older and people around me are dying” she told us. She explained how a Christian shop had refused to display a poster for the event, and that passers by seeing the sign on the street had appeared either puzzled or disgusted. Both points indicate the stigma surrounding death that still exists. So why not talk about the issue that will come to us all and shed some light upon it? You don’t get many people chatting about funeral plans while munching on a Kit Kat at the break table.

Valerie, a lively journalist all the way from Ireland working for RTE added to the excitement. She was a big fan of Chester “its wonderful for shopping and the rows” she enthused. I slumped down into my chair eating a flapjack with a slightly coconut taste ( all cakes provided by a stall holder from the Saughall Saturday market) Valerie was producing a show for Irish radio.. the chatting began. I have to announce that Ben and I didn’t speak for the whole two hours, we were referred to in the radio report as “two people who didn’t speak”. I remain reticent in certain social situations and this remains a problem when faced with the real/non twitter world. However I was very comfortable observing and taking notes as events unfolded.

Valerie had a keen interest in death having been told by her mother that death was a “great adventure” and not something to fear. She has an interest in how the dead are treated and explained how 2 Irish universities set up a course in “end of life” ethics. Religion was touched upon, with one of the café guests being a follower of the Ba Hai faith. She spoke of how we must all face up to death: “we are mortal and our lives are finite” The life reaffirming power of death proved a constant theme. By throwing away notions of morbidity and grim sadness we can come to realise that the shortness of our lives make them all the more precious. The Ba Hai believe that the soul progresses and that by doing service to humanity we move closer and closer to God. There was also much talk of Irish funeral tradition and the associated culture of silence, especially with regards to young people. Young children in Ireland are sometimes shielded from funerals- this led to a bloody good discussion about how this worked in the UK, and the impact of youngsters facing the death of a loved one at a young age. The owner of the funeral parlour echoed this sentiment and also provided some more factual coverage of the costs of funeral (average UK cost £4000) and the treatment and collection of corpses.

Views on funeral styles split the room, with some favouring sombre mourning and others seeing funerals as a joyous celebration of the deceased. Sue explained that in the Jewish tradition, funerals are always held within 24 hours. The time flew by in the serene funeral parlour atmosphere, truly a place at peace , sheltered from the urban jungle of Brook Street. How interesting to learn of woodland burials.. the image of a countryside grave covered in orange flowers, that had fed upon the minerals in the corpse to flourish, was quite stirring. And who knew that cardboard coffins can carry up to 25 stone and are unpopular with Blacon Crematorium because they ignite so quickly?

Moments of surreal humour lit up the cafe. One guest joked “ I dont want people I dont like coming to see me at the end, I’d probably have a banned list!” The Funeral Director spoke of their ability to provide large format photographs of the deceased…

“Do you mean dead!?” asked someone in horror and surprise.

“erm no when they’re alive”

During a chat about graves providing a focal point for rememberance, and where the soul resided- at a physical location or all around us, Sue delighted the group with the comment “I think my mothers in Marks and Spencers food hall! I think about her every time I go in!”

The death café was a wonderful experience and left me feeling very relaxed. Many topics were only touched upon, suicide, life after death, death in the arts and I would encourage the open minded t attend the next one (date TBC). The Buddhists believe that “there will come a time when peace is in abundance”.. I stepped out into the sunlight and Chester getting beat 2 nil by Welling didn’t seem to matter all that much in the great scheme of things.

Thanks to Funerals from the Heart and Sue Barsky-Reid

www.deathcafe.com

http://suebarskyreid.com/

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