'Death Cafés' by Laura Inman

Laura Inman, who blogs at The Living Philosopher  (Stoic and Literary Ideas as a Guide to Living), explores how the Stoic focus on death can lead to living the fullest, most meaningful kind of life….

An article on the front page of the New York Times last week discussed a new type of social gathering that the reporter found to be surprising and, evidently, newsworthy: a “death cafe”—a group of people meeting in a café or diner to discuss death from  practical and philosophical perspectives.  Meeting to discuss any single, given topic is not unusual—think about groups of new parents to discuss child raising, PTO groups,  or bible study groups. The surprise and novelty of the meetings come from the topic– death, which our society apparently does not consider discussion-worthy or the topic for passing a convivial hour or two.

As a practicing Stoic, I find a focus on death normal and advisable.  I similarly find it droll that people are intrigued by the question, “What would you do if this were your last day?” Surely you should live every day as if it were. Roman Stoicism, as I have extrapolated and adapted it from Seneca, puts death at the heart of how to live a tranquil life and teaches the value of keeping death in mind and living every day as if it could be your last.

In the Stoic view, death establishes perspective as no other notion can. Seneca describes in an essay how life is not short at all if one lives life fully and points out that the way to do that is to keep death in mind.  If you live like you will live forever, you are far more likely to fritter away your time and be left feeling that life was too short or unfulfilled.  Secondly, the reality of death fosters deeper, closer, and more patient and loving ties with our loved ones:  it is axiomatic if you think about it in this way—if you knew that your child would not live out the month, how would you act towards him?  That would pertain to many relationships and no doubt make you more appreciative of your relationships and a kinder person.  However, one might ask: is it really possible to go around imagining that each time you see a loved one it could be the last?  A thought does not take much effort, is free, and quiet– so, yes, the thought is not too burdensome.  But, is it a foolish thought, such as any number of notions that we could entertain throughout the day?  It is far from foolish when you consider parents who have sent their children to school only to have them gunned down and movie-goers who have died in the rapid rattle of the semi-automatic; add to that natural disasters, illness, and the risks that we accept from trains, planes and automobiles.  A basic Stoic idea: what can happen to someone can happen to you.  Last argument in favor of entertaining thoughts of death: even if you play the odds and think how unlikely it is so that you and your loved ones will die soon, if you were  nonetheless to focus on death, you stand a great chance of valuing life and acting like a better person.

In addition to defeating procrastination and making us cherish loved ones, death, when contemplated, gives us an appreciation for our own paltry existence; truly our life is terminable, and then there will be nothing (an end or a transition, but certainly not the same thing).  Or–if things are really bad, then death is a consolation.

One author put it generally that “Death makes life beautiful.”  Indeed, although it is really incomprehensible, try to imagine immortality.  Then, one remembers the poem by Swinburne: “We thank with brief thanksgiving / whatever gods may be/ that no life lives forever / that dead men rise up never / and that even the weariest river / runs somewhere safe to sea.”

Even according death such a central role in my life, I would not necessarily get excited about death cafes because the value of the discussion depends on what is being said about death. There could be discussion about it it that would not be beneficial, but simply depressing because something as potent as death, something that can give such a perspective on life, has to be powerful and it is– powerfully awful.  I can’t like death, which takes away people I love; I can only make use of it.  Not ever having attended a “death café” I can’t know what others say about death, but I suspect there is a lot of trying to reconcile death with life, i.e., trying to feel okay about dying or having others die.  As a Stoic, I will simply be pragmatic about it.

More about Laura Inman: 

Laura Inman is a Bronte scholar, lawyer, writer, and aspiring Stoic.  Her blog is http://thelivingphilosopher.com/, which features Stoic and literary ideas as a guide to living.

Laura’s philosophy:

Who is the Living Philosopher?

You are and I am; we should all study ideas, select the best, and incorporate them into a useful philosophy for living. Why are we all charged with this responsibility?  In the end, we have to think for ourselves, even save ourselves from our own miseries.  As for developing our philosophy by borrowing from others, no one has a monopoly on an idea.  Seneca wrote, “Whatever is true is mine.”  If a notion suits you, it is as much yours as anyone’s. I have found that the ideas central to Ancient Roman Stoicism, as expressed in particular by Seneca in his essays and letters, resound as sensible, practical, doable, and salutary.  I had developed a couple of ideas of a philosophical nature in the course of my college education and literary reading, which I still follow.  I have also been greatly misled and made less tranquil than I might have been by many popular notions, such as those about the role and value of emotions and what constitutes success.  With Seneca as a source and John Keats as inspiration, I work on my own philosophy.  Seneca exhorted his pupil: “What do you say? How long will you be a subaltern?  Take command and say things which will be handed down to posterity.  Produce something of your own. All these men who never create but lurk as interpreters under the shadow of another are lacking, I believe, in independence of spirit.”

11 thoughts on 'Death Cafés' by Laura Inman

  1. Ted Pomeroy says:

    Thank you for this post. As I faced treatment for cancer in the the last twelve months, with the realization that death could come at any time I have found the Stoic ideas and writings the most uplifting and comforting. As I am over sixty years old and in my time of ripeness, as I call it, death must be closer than in earlier years. I have accepted treatment and am doing better, but life and each day are made richer by thinking of all the good I have and keeping my attitude and actions positive.

    • Angela Gilmour says:

      I too thank you Laura. This weekend is the third anniversary of my husbands sudden death. I have found that certainly in the UK death is a taboo subject. Over the past three years several other friends have lost their partners and we have been able to let down the mask we wear and talk openly about death and our experiences and the challenges in our lives. Since taking part in Stoic Week at the end of 2013 I have reflected on the daily Texts and continued with the exercises in the handbook. Yesterday’s exercise on philanthropy and relationships I feel is a template on how to cope with bereavement. Simplistically you need to develop natural affection for lots of people rather than a passionate relationship for just one person who you did everything with. Friends to enjoy different aspects of your life. You need to be aware of your mortality and live each day as if it were your last – not in a frienzied hive of activity but mindfully nurturing your relationships with friends and family. A few months after my husband died I found a lump and although it was only a few weeks till I was given the all clear I feel some empathy with Ted and I will pray that your treatment continues to go well and the Stoic Principles help you spiritually.

      • laurainman says:

        thank you for your comment, Angela,.There are two parts to death, and you have mentioned both: dealing with the death of a loved one and facing our own death. It is strange how those two experiences might differ, and that a person could be reconciled to one, but not the other. Stoicism had an approach to both, but Seneca acknowledged that grief was stubborn and of all the emotions knew that it was the least susceptible to reason. The Stoic ideas that you set out for dealing with grief sound very helpful.

    • laurainman says:

      Thank you for your comment. It would seem correct to say that someone diagnosed with cancer is closer to death than someone else. I would have thought so, but when I read in one of Seneca’s letters a challenge to the notion that old people are closer to death than others, I reconsidered. As he pointed out, people die all the time, and there is no knowing. (He made that observation to argue against procrastinating and living life like it will go on forever; when one lives like that he or she is likely to get to the end and feel it was too short because so much was left undone.) My parents are in their 90s and 80s and alive; my brother died at 56. En masse young people in their prime went down in the most recent airplane disaster. It is not a cliché that any given day could be any person’s last.
      I have not had to deal with cancer, although that might just mean I haven’t had that experience yet, and if/when I live long enough to face that, I will try to apply my Stoicism as you have done.

    • laurainman says:

      Ted, I have commented on your comment, but I think it has appeared below the following one. Please scroll down, if that is the case.

  2. Susan Hannis says:

    I thought death cafes were becoming quite common. They take place all around the UK.
    Here in Totnes we have one every 6 weeks or so and they are great discussions, not at all gloomy but with lots of laughter and sharing.
    We have covered our own ideas of what happens at death, what we should be doing now to prepare for that time, how to do as much as we can to help those left behind, the disposal of our remains, living wills, the medical issues and much more. Some have said it has helped with their recent bereavements, others to get on and simplify their lives, others to get their papers sorted out. We also had a visit to a local crematorium which was very enlightening!
    You would not find the conversations sad or morbid in any way. As you say, it is a very useful thing to do, confront the reality of our own death.

  3. Tatiana Cant says:

    I’ve recently been on an Embracing Dying workshop and would love to come to a Death Cafe in Totnes. When is the next one please?

    • Georgia says:

      Hi Angela and Tatiana – I co-facilitate the Totnes group and you would be very welcome to join us. We meet on the last Saturday of each month, usually at Birdwood House on the High street. It’s not exactly a Death Cafe although we run it in a similar style with homemade cake and tea and coffee. it’s simply called ‘conversations about death and dying’. Please email me at mortalitea.andcake@gmail.com and I will add you to the email list. We send out a notice of each meeting to everyone on the list.
      The next meeting will be on Saturday 31 May, 3pm at Birdwood House.
      The postcode for Birdwood House is TQ9 5SQ. Hope to see you both there, warm wishes, Georgia

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