Back in the early 90’s I ran an organisation that advised on everything to do with death and dying, including sitting vigil with the dying, so I’m relaxed around the subject. In general though, people feel that death is something that they can’t speak about, perhaps because it will bring death to them or make people think they’re weird, so I was slightly anxious about how many people would turn up to the first Portobello Death Café, especially since it was being recorded by Radio 4.
I need not have worried. In all, there were about 20 of us, about half of whom looked under 25, and the conversation flowed beautifully. Not surprisingly, older people had developed their philosophy around death, it seemed to hold no fear for them, and they were keen to stress how important it was to live as full a life as possible. Younger people seemed more focused on the deaths they had experienced and how the process of dying, death and bereavement seemed too haphazard, that there were no rituals to guide them or anyone else through something that didn’t just happen for one day but resonated throughout their lives.
(A few days later Selfies At Funerals appeared on tumblr, which confirmed those experiences. I don’t think it’s the end of civilisation but a demonstration that many young people are now totally unprepared to deal with death and are attempting to find their own way based on how they handle other events. They now know that death is not like other events.)
Right at the beginning of the evening we wrote about what death meant for us on Post It notes and stuck them on the wall. Throughout the evening the notes fell off like autumn leaves. No one missed the symbolism. The reporter put his recording equipment away and joined us as an equal, we all listened to each other carefully and respectfully. The age differences in this group were striking and whilst no overt teaching happened it was noticeable and somewhat moving that younger people listened carefully to what older people had to say and vice versa.
Then we fell upon the exquisite Red Velvet cake that Hummingbird Bakery had so kindly donated and I had to remind people to go home so that the venue could close on time. The only thing I wasn’t happy with was the part of the Radio 4 report in which I say “Portobello Death Café” as if I’ve gone mad. I was reading the cake and was fairly overwhelmed by Hummingbirds generosity and the sheer prettiness of the cake. You can hear my shame as well as the wise and useful things that people said at the café here at around 25mins in.
I’m hopeful that tonight’s Death Café will be as successful and that the one on the 13th November that will be filmed by Yahoo will come across well. People do want to talk about death, to explore their fears and philosophy and develop their knowledge by listening to other people’s experience. If you’re around Portobello, join us.
Lighthouse West London
111-117 Lancaster RoadW11 1QT
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