Amblin' Alameda: Death Café

Amblin' Alameda: Death Café

Morton Chalfy

Christine Kovach and Susan Barber want to talk to Alamedans about death. Photo by Janice Worthen.

Sunday evening we attended a session of the death café, which is a “movement” begun in England by a therapist who felt the subject needed ongoing discussion. The rules of engagement are simple and civil: First, serve tea and cakes; second, observe the dictates of good manners and tolerance in allowing all to speak, none to dominate, and eschew proselytizing. Listen well and speak in the first person.

This time the group was smaller than usual, not quite a dozen people, which actually made for a pleasant conversation. The schedule calls for two hours of discussion, and that was about perfect for the group as everyone had an ample opportunity to express themselves. The folks who come to these meetings all seem to be intelligent, sensitive - and in this venue, forthcoming - which makes for a satisfying exchange of views.

I think the reason death cafés are happening now in our socio-cultural milieu is that we are living so much longer that the old rules for the end of life are not sufficient to the current task. Life expectancies grow rapidly now that medical care has made significant inroads on what used to be the main killers of people - heart attacks and strokes, communicable diseases and cancer. Public health has improved greatly due to water treatment, sewage removal and garbage pick up and that has saved the lives of countless infants so they could grow to be old people.

Alzheimer's disease is a great worry of old age now. The prospect of outliving one's mind and becoming a being unable to care for itself and living in confusion and anxiety is not pretty. Medicine keeps so many things from ending our lives prematurely that it fosters the problem many have of outliving their minds, bodies and energy. In other parts of the world old people retain the civil rights of all people and can be assisted in leaving this life when they feel their circumstances warrant it. In Switzerland, I learned at the café, a doctor will come to your house and administer a lethal pill or injection if it is desired by the patient and within medical guidelines.

Here, we can only talk about it or plan something illegal like stockpiling pills or sticking one's head in the oven with the gas on and the flame off. The best death, in my opinion and barring accident, would be in one's sleep after one feels a full life has been lived and no energy remains for more.

Unfortunately, no one can know the time of his or her demise, the place, or the method, but for those of us with a keen sense of mortality the discussion is a timely one. And it's a discussion one cannot have with just anyone, and often one's family is resistant to the conversation. Children don't want to think of a life without a parent, and many people feel that even talking about it is a way of inviting it into our lives. Of course death is in our lives from the moment of birth and ignoring its proximity does not banish it to the void.

I'm glad there is a place, every several months, to get together and trade observations and emotions with others who feel the need to visit the subject. There were many shades of feeling expressed and many views of dealing with dying and death which were helpful. There was also some really great cake.

If you're interested in knowing more, has the information. Or check out this December 9, 2013 piece in The Alamedan.