I went to a café with a difference in Crouch End, recently — a Death Café.
Yes, it is quite a morbid sounding name. No, it is not offering death by cream cake! It was a chance for a small group of people to get together over coffee and cake, and, through sensitive facilitation, talk about death in an open and safe manner. It’s an idea imported from the US, and a good one
I found great meaning and solace in the stories that we all shared. Some spoke of their fears. Others shared the experience of caring for a parent who was terminally ill or had passed away.
I thought about how this may work in my community and talked to a few members. Some felt this would be beneficial. Others were quite perturbed by the idea. Of course a Death Café is not for all. But talking about death may free many people from fearing it, and then may allow them to live life more to the full. Making plans for your own death will often reduce stress and burden for family members left behind. In Judaism, death is bound up with our system of belief. It is the point of transition between what we call “this world”, and ‘the world to come’.
This transition is understood to be seamless, and that all move on between this world and the next. So why talk about death? It may feel that talking about death exposes doubt in the belief system that it is undoubtedly a part of. Maybe the reason that we need to talk about death, is that we are also bid to value greatly the world in which we live. The Gaon of Vilna was crying before his death in 1796, saying “I am not crying out of fear of the world to come.” He showed his pupils the ritual fringes of his garment and said, “In this world, for a few coins one can buy a pair of tzitzit and fulfil other commandments. This privilege is only in this world. Once I am in the world to come, there is no such opportunity. That is why I am crying.”
But for many, the finality of death is just too much to think about. Talking about how we feel and hearing from others can go some way to relieve these difficult feelings. In Ethics of the Fathers we are told, “This world is like an antechamber before the world to come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber so that you may enter the banqueting hall.” Death is inevitable. But we are living longer and healthier lives. Let’s consider openly how we can prepare ourselves for our passage onwards.
David Mason is rabbi of Muswell Hill Synagogue
For End of Life Care Planning contact Jewish Care: firstname.lastname@example.org 020 8922 2222.