Several days after leaving Winchester and walking the South Downs Way through southern England, filming ourselves and the landscape, and endlessly talking, we reached the perilous cliffs of Beachy Head. From these vertically pitched, chalk-white heights, desperate souls have flung themselves to a brutal end, and countless ships have been wrecked at their rocky base. I’d imagined May sunshine, and us all sitting in a circle on the grassy cliff top. But as we approached our journey’s close, rain thrashed down, gales blew, and I could no longer see the cliff edge for fog rising from the sea. In the distance, I could just make out the outlines of crosses — memorials to past suicides. Then I spotted a table and, as I got closer, blue and yellow balloons tied by strings to its legs, dancing, hysterical, in the wind. Cake stands held green-iced sponges — one, topped with plastic lambs, another with the Way’s Long Man of Wilmington drawn on it in white icing. A Union Flag stirred in the air, its pole poking up from a sponge topped with green hills and a cowshed.
I had joined ‘A 100-Mile Conversation’ halfway through. A film project by the London artists Nathan Burr and Louis Buckley, it had progressed, in real time, from Winchester, across the M3 motorway, down through the Chilcomb Valley, then east along the coast. The purpose? To discuss suicide. Bringing the cake had been my idea. How apt, I’d thought, how crazy even, to celebrate the project’s end by drinking tea on a cliff edge; how right, somehow, to celebrate life with an abundance of cake at a beauty spot marred by the sadness of suicide jumpers.
One month later, and I’m tangled up with cake and death again. I’m at a Death Café, drinking loose-leaf Assam at London’s Royal College of Art with eight strangers. We finger mugs and wipe cake crumbs from our lips. I’ve set the others an exercise. A petite woman beside me reads from a sheet of paper on the tablecloth: ‘The first words that came to mind when I thought of the word death,’ she smiles, ‘were fucking bloody shit.’ ‘Death Cafés’ were a frequent topic of conversation on the 100-mile walk: the two had much in common in wanting to probe people’s personal connection to death. I’d attended several, intrigued by the dynamics that might unfold there, but also drawn there by personal loss. Now I was hosting my own.
The guests took turns to voice their thoughts and feelings across a wide range of subjects. How does it feel to lose a parent? What is existence? What matters most to us in life? We talked about the Mexican Day of the Dead, suicide memorials and Freud’s death drive. Would we live forever, if we had the chance? To embalm or not to embalm? And, cremation — what do we do with those ashes; ‘our grandparents were left on top of the fridge freezer for decades’, one person recalled. On this occasion, women outnumbered men. Some of us had plenty of experience of death, others, little or none. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to talk. What is death like? What exactly are we afraid of? To what degree do our ideas on death influence how we live?
I saw my first dead body when I was 19 — the mother of a very close friend. As I’d hovered beside her, terrified, certain that at any moment she would sit back up in bed, I glanced over at a vase of flowers on the bedside table, bought the week before. I couldn’t take my eyes off those flowers — in my memory, they’re white — unable to comprehend how they could live on, when she did not.
I was no braver when my mother suffered a stroke and was kept alive for three years by whirring machines and feed drips. She lay silent and still in a nursing-home bed. I began to feel her silence as my silence, her paralysis as my own. I couldn’t tell friends about the dark thoughts circling my brain; could no more move on with my life than she could escape hers. My father died 15 years later, during which time we met only once. In their different ways, each of my parents’ deaths was prefaced by silence; and so, to my first Death Café, silence was what I carried with me.
The Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz writes of the imperative to liberate death from what he calls ‘tyrannical secrecy’ — tyrannical, presumably, because whatever we remain quiet about enslaves us to our fears. In his 2010 book, Cafés Mortels: Sortir la Mort du Silence, or ‘bringing death out of silence’, he addresses the shameful irony of how, in our modern, Western society of communication, ‘people have secrets that bully’. Crettaz has been hosting cafés mortels — social gatherings that put death at the centre of conversation — since 2004, in salons, bistros and private houses across Switzerland and France. In 2011 they were imported to the UK by a British Buddhist called Jon Underwood, and renamed Death Cafés. Around 1,000 people have so far attended Death Cafés in England, Wales, the US, Canada, Australia and Italy.
‘I come from a mountain background, where people start talking about death when they are just little children,’ Crettaz told The Boston Globe in 2010. ‘I wanted to reproduce that — but where? I’d prefer a public square, but then someone suggested the café. It was a place where people shared intimacies, but in a relaxed way.’ In Death Cafés, conversation is driven by ideas and questions that people never dared express before. Although Death Cafés do not offer grief therapy, private losses are, inevitably, shared: people talk movingly about suicide, accidental deaths, miscarriages, stillbirths, abortions. Parents of disabled children admit they can no longer cope; a son reveals how he practises a funeral rite for his mother — even though she’s still alive.
Yet cafés mortels are also vital places, often raucous with laughter. Speaking about death scrubs away our facades, brings us closer to who we really are. There’s a sense of liberation in such honesty, compounded by the idea that in talking about death, one is somehow breaking a taboo. Crettaz says that death is ‘a scandal, a ghost that lives with us. But the goal is to get creative and make it a non-destructive ghost’. He says: ‘I am never so in tune with the truth as during one of these soirées. And I have the impression that the assembled company, for a moment, and thanks to death, is born into authenticity.’
Over the past century, in North America and Europe, dying has increasingly been concealed behind hospital or nursing-home walls and the dead are banished from their own memorial services. But for the previous 40,000 years, the pattern was very different. As the writer and funeral director Thomas Lynch notes in The Good Funeral (2013): ‘Whatever afterlife there is or isn’t, human beings have marked their ceasing to be by going with their dead — to the tomb or the fire or the grave, the holy tree or deep sea, whatever sacred space of oblivion we consign them to.’
The shift in attitudes that Lynch describes was famously documented by Jessica Mitford, whose book The American Way of Death (1963) balked at the sanitation that accompanied the mass commercialisation of the funeral industry. Undertakers, Mitford complained, had become ‘morticians’, coffins were ‘caskets’, corpses ‘loved ones’. Death and dying had been transformed into disappearing acts. Lynch remarks that rates of cremation (the ultimate disappearance, and below five per cent in Mitford’s time) have risen in the decades since to nearly 50 per cent. The cost of dying, he says, has been rising faster than the cost of living.
At my father’s funeral, inside that modern, white church with its sterile altar and impossibly large flower arrangements, the pews had stood empty, except for where his wife, two elderly friends and my sisters and I were seated. The vicar spoke of my dad’s love of fast cars — his only intimate detail. Towards the end of his oration, music started blasting from speakers and the tall, crimson curtains around my father’s coffin began to draw. His wife jumped up from her seat, and my sisters and I followed, rushing towards those curtains, hurling our red roses through the ever-shrinking gap.
Just as the ancient Greeks placed honey cakes in graves to appease Pluto’s hound Cerberus, who guarded the gates of Hades, might not I too appease the gods?
If we can’t look at our dead in the flesh, how can we talk about them? They become as absent from our speech as they were at their funerals. If the death industry really has been ‘Mitfordised’, as Thomas Lynch suggests — drained of ritual, of what’s sacred — then what is real? How can we expect to have an authentic, human response to our own mortality?
Death Cafés help repair our relationship with farewell rites, largely because they put ritual back into death and mourning. A Death Café is a ritual space, built chair by chair, cup by cup. Its ritual objects are the tea tray, pot, milk jug, tablecloth. These mundane items are essential to how it works. Guests sit around a table and commit to staying for the duration (usually two hours). The host holds the space, administers ritual objects (pen and paper) and performs any rites (pouring tea, cutting cake).
But its chief ritual items are food and drink. If food equals flesh, and if eating grounds us in our bodies, then ritual food can help us contact what’s spiritual. This symbolic idea of food spreading holy aura — a kind of contagious magic — is common to many religions: from the Hindu custom of eating food and water that has been offered to, or come into contact with a god or goddess, to the wine and starch wafer ‘host’, representing the blood and body of Christ in the Christian Eucharist. As the 13th-century poet and mystic Hadewijch of Brabant wrote, ‘love’s most intimate union is through eating, tasting, and seeing interiorly’. At the Death Café, carrot cake and Darjeeling help prepare the way for us to consume, assimilate, become — not God, or another deity — but ourselves. Or perhaps, as one guest suggested: ‘Have your ashes baked into a cake, and your friends can eat you!’
In the three years leading to my mother’s death, if my sisters or I felt momentarily overwhelmed, the kettle would go on and the tea bags would come out. These ceremonies made us feel normal in an abnormal world. The mugs of strong tea were sustaining, but they were also markers on the path of my own mourning. They said: ‘Enough crying. Pull yourself together. Drink up.’ I could not yet bury my dead, but I could still have my rituals. Just as the ancient Greeks placed honey cakes in graves to appease Pluto’s hound Cerberus, who guarded the gates of Hades, might not I too appease the gods? Might one of them not take pity, and ferry my mother, who for now was consigned to limbo, across the Styx to the Underworld?
For a long time, it never occurred to me that what brought me to my first Café — a desire to understand my fear of death — masked a deeper terror. It took many more mugs of tea around strangers’ tables. It took hearing about a shy 19-year-old’s loss of his father, and how a car crash had subsequently killed his step-dad. It took the pretty funeral director whose kayak had overturned while she was white-water rafting, confessing that as she began drowning she felt nothing but joy. It took the white-haired hypnotherapist, draped in chunky beads, saying how only that morning she’d been bagging up her dead husband’s clothes. It took these and many more Death Café confidences before I realised that death had always been easy to be afraid of, like a bump in the night: the spooky face at the window — out there, but still far away. Life, on the other hand, was here, now, and it was far more treacherous.
I no longer see death as some looming avenger, but rather as a final change in life’s constant flux. I know that chewing it over can help us reflect decisively on our existence, whether we’re devising ‘bucket lists’, or attempting to come to terms with the ‘unfinished-ness’ of living: accepting that the knots of our lives will always remain frayed, or undone.
At the cliff-top tea party back in May, after, wet-fisted and shivering, we’d gorged ourselves on green mounds of ‘hill’ cake (an odd act of transubstantiation: swallowing the very landscape we’d walked through); when most of us were drifting towards the warmth of car heaters or the sanctuary of the local pub, I turned and looked back at the table with its soggy tablecloth and puffy wet sandwiches to see the last stragglers scooping up what was left and flinging it from the cliff edge. I watched cakes fly up in the air, hunks hurled off Beachy Head only feet from those white crosses. Balloons circled, free, in a white sky. This act felt symbolic. Let us eat, let us celebrate living; and then let us give it all back to the abyss — the drop that waits over the edge, that’s only, ever, a few steps away.