Death Café Hopping

***Note that names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

On a quest for insight into the fate of our minds and selves after death, I’ve attended several Manhattan “Death Cafés”: part of an international movement that encourages participants to ponder their eventual demise together, while enjoying tasty treats. Back in June, 2013, I saw a New York Times article about monthly events at the Chelsea Le Pain Quotidien, where people came together and discussed—yes—death, for a full hour and a half. I signed up for one that month, hoping other people would be curious enough to attend. The event described in the article was small; perhaps a few more adventurous souls would join after this publicity. As it turned out, interest was stunningly high. Many more people signed up on Meetup than could be accommodated, and, beginning the week before the event, several stern messages warned that the meeting was filled to capacity—so please do not come if you haven’t received confirmation.

I’m guessing many ignored these admonitions, for the Death Café people took over the entire restaurant. The place was a din of death-related talk. We broke into groups of 4 and began with the suggested ice-breaker: “What brought you to the Death Café?” I’d hoped for a group of intriguing souls who’d had relevant mystical experiences I could respect. But these people had little interest in an afterlife. They wanted to discuss death as it applied to their lives: how to plan for it, how to make amends with people before the end, how to live while facing mortality.

My fellow group members were Joan, a retired teacher; a retired physician named Peter; and Ann, a 65-ish businesswoman. Faces throughout the café were predominantly white, with a few Asians and Latinos in the mix. In our group, I was by far the youngest. Looking around, I noticed a few who seemed quite young, but most veered towards late middle age or older.

Though I was possibly the farthest from death in my group, the others found much more peace in the prospect. Peter joked that maybe he shouldn’t be so careful about taking his cardiac medications, since a quick heart attack wasn’t a bad way to go. Joan wanted to be sure she didn’t linger and become a burden on her family if illness struck her; she talked about living wills and family members she suspected of taking their lives before they became too weak to function. Ann’s mother had recently died in her 90s, and she accepted that and hoped she’d follow a similar trajectory: health followed by death at a similar age.

I asked: “You wouldn’t prefer to live forever in excellent health?” She laughed and said forever felt like a very long time. The others agreed. They were all fairly sure consciousness ends when the body dies—and, even if it endures, that angle did not particularly interest them. To me, this was amazing, but that’s how life goes when you open yourself to others. They were insightful, kind people, and I enjoyed the chance to explore very different minds: ones that embraced this-worldly realities and didn’t feel the need to search beyond them for answers.

July’s Death Café was less crowded but still well attended; many thought the heat wave had driven people away. This time, my group of 4 sat at our own, relatively quiet table, and though there were plenty of other Death Café discussions going on, the atmosphere was manageable, and we could hear easily. Once again, I was the youngest in our group—though Steve in his late 50s was younger than any of my fellow group members the last month. Again, people were open, hoping to help each other, excited to meet others who actually wanted to discuss this ultimate taboo. Indeed, that was a theme: a desire to explore something that normally gets slid into a corner of silence and fear.

Sharon, an elegant older woman, wanted to talk about the sudden, surprising death of her husband; David, a well-read retired police officer, sat across from her, sipping his coffee and listening intently to everyone’s stories. Unlike the other two, Steve had a strong spiritual side, believing that, when we die, we will merge into an awe-inspiring wisdom and power, leaving our individuality behind but gaining something infinitely more powerful and glorious. I didn’t relish the idea of losing myself, but he assured me that what awaited was not the nothing I feared, but a Something that was wondrous beyond anything I could currently imagine. To me this sounded a bit like some Buddhist notions I’d heard, but when I mentioned that, he was very clear that he followed no tradition—and his ideas stemmed from his individual intuitions and experiences. Sharon assumed we were all there because we had lost someone recently, but she was the only one in that situation. The others were simply curious.

Like the last month, our group gelled, and there was something exhilarating about discussing death with a group of not-quite-random strangers who soon felt like friends. I opened up about my horror of death—and my fear that it will bring the end of me and all that I love. No one else shared that worry and they accepted death with little problem, but they respected and honored me and my concerns. They, too, felt embraced. This least likely of topics can form a fabulous conversation centerpiece among people who have never met. It’s one of the few predicaments that all of us clearly and unequivocally share.

Though my particular discussion groups did not focus on survival of consciousness after death or mystical concerns, I’m told these issues frequently come up. When I have more time, I will go again, and see what I might discover.

New York is a city of fabulous diversity; it even offers a range of Death Cafés. Much as I enjoyed the mostly non-spiritual banter at Le Pain Quotidien (they’ve since moved a few times and currently meet at the Hunan Manor restaurant on Lexington Avenue) I was thrilled to learn that a writer named Alice hosts a Death Café in her Upper West Side apartment—and that she attracts a larger proportion of mystical types. Her July, 2013 café was in demand: she had a waiting list of people beyond the 13 or so she could comfortably fit in her living room.

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We were all women except one lanky, gray-haired man, all white aside from one African-American woman. Ages ranged from youngish to elderly. A cameraman taped our introductions for possible airing on national TV. Exciting as that was, even more compelling was the question Alice asked me when I told her I feared death because I didn’t ever want my consciousness to end: “Who told you the story that your consciousness ends at death?”

“Isn’t that the default assumption, barring evidence to the contrary?”

She looked genuinely surprised and said: “I can’t imagine why.” Alice is older but energetic, with no fear of death. The two others in my discussion group, both 50-ish women, nodded—they saw just what Alice was saying. Laura, a well-dressed publicist, discussed various experiences where she’d communicated with deceased people. To her, they were as real as the sun. Lynne—brought up Christian but now settled within her own independent spiritual sense—had never experienced anything so dramatic, but feels intuitively that human personality survives the big event. She asked me how my life would differ if I believed that with calm assurance. I breathed in, savoring the thought, and said: “I can’t even begin to imagine how wonderful it would be.”

Everyone agreed that the difference in my whole demeanor when I considered that notion was stunning. Lynne suggested I live for a week like I know my spirit is immortal. I have no idea how, but, when the time is right, I will try.

The small groups merged into one big discussion as we wrapped up, and several people spoke wistfully of simpler times and places where death is openly engaged and often happens at home, an organic, unhidden part of events. I shivered: hiddenness has a place when death seems a horrifying thing. But for this group, it inspired zestful curiosity and even a sense of wonder. They joyfully discussed yet more Death Cafés happening throughout Manhattan.

Indeed, several months ago I attended a Death Café at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. It was a large group—perhaps 50—mostly people in late middle age or older, but with a few younger participants in the mix. After some delicious home-baked pastries and music with a talented pianist, we settled into the heart of things: small-group discussion. One woman, perhaps in her late 30s, told us she wanted a child soon, one way or another. I laughed; she was charming and funny. The others—most of us were women ranging from 30s to perhaps 80s; there was one 60-ish disheveled-looking man in the mix—did not smile. One woman, a neatly dressed middle-aged teacher, asked, quietly, “Do the rest of you have children?” None of us did.

“I wonder if this is part of why we’re all here: because we lack the support systems people used to have in discussing all this,” said a woman with long, thick brown hair tinged with gray as she rubbed the faded knees of her jeans. People nodded; a nerve had been touched. I’ve never wanted children, but I had the sense many others in the group felt a lack that they were trying to fill. Many in other Death Cafés were leading more traditional lives, but still: they discussed frenetic careers, lonely retirements, and missing family members who lived elsewhere.

Few at these meetings shared my interest in the hereafter, and I’d been wondering why, exactly, so many found these events exciting. Perhaps death is especially mind-blowing for people like us—seeking our dreams, building unusual niches, but lacking the comfort of old ways. How wonderful that many in New York are not shy about facing it with intimate strangers.

Much as I enjoyed these events, I don’t envision myself traveling back and forth from Boston to catch them regularly. I’d only do that if they provided insight into my deepest death-related question: what will happen after life ends to my (and your) consciousness? I was amazed that, even at events where people felt moved to discuss death in-depth with strangers, the overwhelming majority were focused on this-worldly concerns. Those who believed in some kind of post-death soul survival were quiet about it; it was a calm, deep-seated faith.

Since I’m more of a hysterical maniac than a quietly faithful soul or a practical sort focused on this life’s concerns, I felt (what else is new?) a bit out of place. But the Death Cafés gave me an idea for the future. I could sit in coffeehouses and other public places—near my home in Cambridge, MA; in New York when I get there; near my parents’ house in New Jersey… wherever I happen to be… and hold a big sign that says: “Death. Tell me what happens next.” I don’t have time for this now, but the thought excites me as a future project. In the meantime, if you’d like to play “Virtual Death Café” and answer this question in the comments, feel very free! I’ve long suspected that my greatest insights into my deepest questions will come casually, helped along by thoughtful people who happen to come my way.