Have an espresso at the Death Café


Have an espresso at the Death Café

JULIANA COETZER wants us to talk about dying after her friend's conscious process and open conversation robbed death of its sting.


I HAVE been a member of a death café for four months now. Every last Thursday of the month, exactly at 3pm, I join the Zoom meeting and talk to a group of unknown people for 90 minutes about any aspect of death. About life too, because one does not happen without the other.

In The Collected Regrets of Clover, the title character says: “The secret to a beautiful death is living a beautiful life."

It was in this book by Mikki Brammer that I read for the first time about a death café. It's the story of Clover, a death doula who accompanies people during the process of dying. Some she helps to fulfil their last wishes, for others she is just a conversation partner.

Once a month, Clover attends one of the death cafés you can find all over New York. People gather in restaurants or coffee shops, and over a cup of coffee and a slice of cake or a sandwich they talk about any topic regarding death. And also about life. The novel a favourite of my book club. It's also a bit of a love story, but the key message is about crossing the final threshold with as few regrets as possible.

“Don't let the best parts of life pass you by because you're too scared of the unknown. Be cautiously reckless,” is my favourite quote from the book.

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I wanted to know there and then if  death cafés are real and if so, have they reached South Africa? Indeed. On Facebook there is a Death Café SA information page, where events that take place mainly in Gauteng are announced. I also came across an active group in the Fish Hoek area. Death cafés are not closed — anyone is welcome to join.

Fortunately, before I set out on the road to Fish Hoek, I met a friend who is the convenor of a death café. The group originated in the southern suburbs of Cape Town but since Covid it has been meeting on Zoom. Although I would have preferred to  join one whose members meet in the flesh, I decided to give the group a try.

My interest in this subject started long before Clover's story. After the death of my father and other loved ones, I was sorry that I hadn't had  the courage to talk to them about the approaching end.

Then my closest friend was diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis was poor and she refused traditional treatment. It was loss that brought us together in the first place. For a long time we were two mirrors reflecting each other's despair.

And then, for the first time in 20 years, we couldn't do it together any more. Only one vehicle at a time could cross that bridge. And yet she did not treat the new route as a mystery but consciously made me part of the conclusion of her life.

First there was the reduction of the externalities — favourite possessions were handed out. Then the ending of the past. Letters of apology were written to people she had hurt. Others said thank you to those who had enriched her life.

Only the present moment mattered. She stood in front of a tree in a forest and looked at it as if for the first time — and the last time. The same with her loved one and every child and grandchild.

There were other fears to face. The dreams and ideals that you want to achieve as a healthy being and the worry that there is not enough time for them are replaced by fear of the lonely road, the darkness that awaits, suffering and the permanent farewell.

We speculated what woud happen afterwards and whether there is an afterlife.

At the end she shared with me her inability to let go of the body. The mind that clings to its earthly home.

And then the acceptance that everything is temporary. Us, too. And finally, peace. Two days before her death, we hugged each other and said thank you for special times and an extraordinary friendship. We cried and said goodbye.

After that, I had a better understanding of the biggest test a person is subjected to at the end of their life: to say goodbye to oneself.

A Death Café gathering in London.
A Death Café gathering in London.

The idea of a death café originated in Switzerland in 2004 when anthropologist Bernard Crettaz advocated open communication about death. Then Jon Underwood took up the idea and in 2011 started the first death café in London. The movement has since spread to many countries.

The meetings are not designed for support or counselling, only discussion. There is no agenda or prescriptive plan, just spontaneous conversation, like you would have with friends in a restaurant or coffee shop. This is also where most of the groups meet. The only money taken out is to pay for the coffee.

The ages of members of my café range between 40 and elderly. We are usually between eight and 10 people. I don't know where they live, what their professions are, whether they are important people or ordinary like me. We're on first-name terms and the rest doesn't matter.

All you see are the rooms where the members are sitting. Some are in an office, others a living room, and there is a room in a retirement home where the walking frame is parked next to the chair, with oranges in a bowl on the table next to the computer and a hairbrush on the dressing table, reflected in the computer screen. This woman is one of the main reasons I look forward to every meeting. She looks like an angel. Her skin is translucent, her hair sparse and pure white. Her hands are slender and she moves gracefully, like a ballerina. She is not a sit-on-my-lap granny but someone from whom you get the wise answers. She listens intently and speaks with a sensitive voice. You feel it — the abundance of spirit within the stripped flesh.

During our last gathering, she said she was getting ready for the last part of her earthly journey. All she had left to do was talk to her children about it. These words opened the conversation. Why do people find it difficult to talk about the subject? Is it because death will keep a safe distance if we ignore it?

I reveal to the group that my friend's conscious process of dying and the open conversations about it have become the greatest gift of my life. Death has lost its sting.

Topics we've discussed at gatherings range from last wishes and the kind of goodbyes we don't want. The senselessness of war and the suffering of people. To treat ourselves and others with compassion. Loss and its effects. The ego that finally no longer needs always to be right or have the last say. Fewer rules, more freedom. Funeral anecdotes have already been exchanged.

We also tell each other that we choose to live and love despite their temporality. And how brave it is to continue doing these things fully,  even with this knowledge. This openness between people who do not have to put up a facade creates a safe environment where experiences are shared and questions are answered without fear of judgement. Where people laugh out loud together and sometimes wipe away a tear. And even in silence, can comfortably sit together.

After every meeting, I am grateful to Clover for introducing me to the death café. I feel at home among this group of men and women whom I know nothing about except that they are willing travel companions.

Death shall have no dominion

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan't crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

— Dylan Thomas

♦ VWB ♦

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