Saturday, 19 November 2011

Reviewed: I went to the Hackney Death Café

By Mike Pollitt. Originally published on Snipe London.

Let’s get the most important half of the review in first: the cake at the death café is delicious.
Now for the death.
Jon Underwood, the café’s softly-spoken proprietor, makes an unlikely Reaper. For a start he wears a T-shirt with the word “DEATH” emblazoned across the front in bright bold brush strokes. I’ve always associated death with a more restrained sartorial palette.
And yet the Reaper is the role Jon has chosen to play. He wants no less than to bring death upon living. Conversationally rather than literally, I should stress. There’s no arsenic in the sandwiches.
Why he has committed to convening two hour meetings on a subject without an answer was not at first entirely clear. But then he said he used to work for a local authority at which point it all started to make sense.
“It’s based on a Swiss idea called the Café Mortalis”, he says. Ah the Swiss. First the Dignitas assisted suicide clinic, now this. They really are world leaders in confronting the fathomless abyss. It must be the scenery.
This death café is located in a pleasant street “between the Tescos” (Hackney’s answer to the des res part of Clapham which lies “between the commons”). Upon arrival I am ushered into a basement lounge, where a wood fire burns and gentle music plays.
The decor is restrained, white walls, wooden table, wooden floor. Candles and firelight. It’s a pleasant place to wait for death to arrive.
Bit by bit, it does, as nervous café goers trickle in. I strike up a chat with a nice looking man. Why is he here? To talk about death. Me too. Is that weird? We tentatively agree that it’s maybe probably hopefully not.
We sit down. There are seven of us now. Were I superstitious, I might find that number significant (seven seals, seven sins). On reflection I think it’s just the number of people that could fit round the table.
We begin to talk about death. The discussion is led by a trained psychotherapist, but follows wherever the contributors take it. Some people’s stories of loss are heartbreaking. Some talk about becoming teenage goths. Sandwiches arrive but no one is hungry. Cake arrives and everyone finds room.
I wanted to talk about my grandparents’ dying, so I did. Everyone listened, then their own stories spun off and we were somewhere else, some other death, some other life I knew nothing about but which still had been a human life. It was cathartic. There was talk of the afterlife, of planning our own funerals, of being children and realising that life was not forever. By the end, discussing death with strangers seemed like a normal thing to do.
At its heart, the death café is philosophical. It is about examining life. Since this is London in 2011, it’s obviously way off trend. It certainly won’t be for everyone. It could be accused of morbidity or pseudyness, but I found it to have neither. If you’ve ever been interested in life or death, in other words if you are an intellectually curious human being, you might like it. It won’t kill you, at any rate.
And the cake!

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