Death Café Society

Feature: An evening at a 'Death Café'

Wikimedia Commons
• January 22, 2019 12:00 pm


When winter storms cover Takoma, Washington, D.C., the neighborhood looks like a snow globe flipped on its head. And death lurks everywhere: in the funeral home on the corner, in the novels stacked in the bookstore—but especially in the conversations at the two-story arts center where tonight, Death Café hosts its first 2019 event in D.C.

"Welcome," Sarah Farr, the event leader, tells me as I enter. "You're the first one. Would you like some tea and cookies?"

I'm usually a coffee and cigarettes guy, but when Earl Grey and Whole Foods chocolate chip cookies appear on a skull-adorned serving platter—my stomach leaps toward the memento mori.

"I'd love some."

Over the next 10 minutes, more Death Café socialites enter the house. They are mostly single women in their early 30s. After greeting our hostess, they come into the kitchen and marvel at Sarah's work. In addition to the platter, all of her napkins are decorated with skulls, and she's baked some sugar cookies slathered in bone white icing. She's also propped up a model human skull to survey the scene.

"Oh, I had better put this on my Instagram!" Jackie, a blond woman wearing leggings and boots, exclaims.

"Okay, everyone, let's begin," Sarah says as she beckons us into the other room. "Now who's been to a Death Café before?"

Few have, so Sarah explains. Death Cafés are a British phenomenon, founded in 2011 by the (now dead) London psychotherapist Jon Underwood. Underwood recognized that his young urban friends had no way to talk about what happens after this life. Church was out of the question—since so few people go—and the reigning generation of parents had often felt too squeamish to mention the subject in the formative years. So, to provide a safe space for death, Underwood started hosting dinners where people could meet and openly discuss the grave and what lies beyond. Over 7,000 Death Cafés are now hosted in 64 countries around the world, according to the organization's website.

Nic Rowan

Sarah has been hosting Death Cafés in D.C. since 2016 because, as she says, "I've always been fascinated with death."

And it seems the rest of us are too. Of the 12 people gathered here in a circle tonight, one is an assistant funeral director, two are meditation leaders, and three are psychotherapists. The rest are people who want knowledge. Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge of the hereafter.

"My closest friend died at the age of 28. Neither of us was very religious, so we never really talked about death," Jackie says at the beginning of the conversation. "I just wish I talked to him about it more, so I often come to Death Cafés hoping to open up conversations like this with people I just met."

She turns to Lillian, a dark haired woman seated across the room.

"Tell me about donating your body to science," she says.

Lillian explains that this is chiefly a bureaucratic process. Organs are either donated to people in need or given to labs for research purposes. Lillian is a speechwriter for a prominent organ donation foundation, so she discourses at great length on its technicalities.

Yanna, a tall blond woman sitting next to Lillian, rolls her eyes and begins massaging the shoulders of Natalie, a buzz-headed woman with whom she had entered the house. When Lillian finishes, Yanna looks up at the ceiling and speaks.

"When I die, I want to become a tree," she says. "I mean, there are so many ridiculous things you can do with your body when you die, and I'd like to be tree or a diamond."

"Mmm, yeah, I want to do that with my cat," a woman from North Carolina agrees.

"Or you could get it shot into space," Yanna says, "which is pretty cool."

"I got all my cat's ashes,"  the North Carolinian continues. "I could probably have enough to have a gemstone. Or I could probably spread some, but where do you spread a cat's ashes that has been indoors all its life? It's not fair to the cat."

"I have many cat ashes too," Sarah says. "And I don't know what to do with them."

"It's always been an issue," the North Carolinian says. "I'm single, moving from apartment to apartment, and bringing all this stuff."

That's not an uncommon issue. Washington, D.C., is a lonely city—a recent CDC study found that the nation's capital sits at the bottom end of the nation's lowest fertility rate in 42 years. It takes 2,100 babies born from every 1,000 women every year to replace the population, and D.C. only pulls 1,421. Lots of cat ashes and fewer children leaves much more time to worry about death.

I get up for another cup of tea. When I return, Yanna is speaking again. She is advocating for the abolition of cemeteries.

"In a hundred years, who's going to visit your grave anyways—your great grandchildren?" she asks the room. "If you even have children in the first place?"

Some of the older people in the room offer objections, but Yanna presses on.

"Dead people don't have a stake in the living. I mean, if I was told my great-great grandma was buried in a cemetery near me, I'd be like, ‘Great, thanks,'" she says. "There's no sentimental value for me for that person."

Natalie adjusts her scarf and shuffles in her seat.

"And because of a societal assumption that I do care, now we can't replace their remains with an educational or rec center that could have benefited the people living there," Yanna says. "That doesn't sit right with me. I would rather use the space for things we do need. If it was putting in a Starbucks, okay, maybe I would understand. But if it's a school or something valuable, I think we could be using that space more productively."

"Well, I think it's a good idea," Sarah responds. "But I would never want that said to my descendants."

"Or anyone's descendants," Lillian agrees.

"Well, I can see that, but—" Yanna says.

"I would be mortified if someone disturbed my mother's ashes," the North Carolinian breaks in.

"Okay, okay, but what about your great grandmother? Someone you never knew?"

Some heads nod in agreement. Sarah attempts to assert her leadership over this derailed café society.

"Well, some people's belief systems are very strict about honoring the dead, and we have to respect—"

"I don't care," Yanna says. "I don't care how long ago it was. I think sometimes we just do things because they are tradition. But it's time to reevaluate our traditions to see if they fit in our current society. We're running out of space in great cities like D.C. and New York—and if we could, shouldn't we repurpose that dead space for something positive, for the benefit of the living?"

We never get an answer, and it's time for some of us to go. The snow is refreezing outside. By morning, it will be a glassy veneer covering over all the living and the dead.

Published under: Feature, Washington