Good morning on this pleasant Tuesday.
[T]he last place you might think to spend a sparkling spring day is at a death cafe.
But that’s exactly what we did this month, and what we found, to our pleasant surprise, was anything but bleak.
On the second Tuesday of each month, the landmark Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn hosts a “death cafe,” a salon-style gathering in which visitors can speak openly about death and mortality.
The death cafe movement, started in England in 2011, is now a global tradition taking place in coffee shops, offices and other unlikely spaces in dozens of countries. Its goal is to make conversations about dying — from the philosophical (is there an afterlife?) to the mundane (metal urn or marble?) — less taboo.
When we joined a recent death cafe at the cemetery, we expected an evening of tissues and tears with a group of New Yorkers in mourning.
The reality was quite the opposite.
We met a lively bunch of strangers, ranging from young adults to octogenarians, most of whom were not grieving at all; they had, instead, come for an intellectually stimulating, if at times uncomfortable, discussion.
“Death cafes are a kind of beautiful rehearsal for coming closer to death and understanding it and grappling with it, so that when we do have a death pending in our families, as is inevitable, we might be a little more prepared for it and slightly less rattled,” said the funeral director and death educator Amy Cunningham, who facilitated the get-together.
“There’s no agenda — nothing is sold or prompted — so it can go in all kinds of interesting directions in a totally natural way,” she said.
Between sugar cookies and laughs, our group jumped from religion to social media to psychotropic drugs to contemporary ethics.
“Can you be buried with your pet?” one woman, a documentary photographer, asked the group, following it up with a conversation on approaching death from a nonreligious perspective.
“How do you handle the loss of an estranged family member?” another wondered, prompting a third — who had lost a relative the week before — to speak about the death of her distant father.
She and her husband then debated the pros and cons of learning of a death through Facebook. Several minutes later, he told the group a separate story about the deathlike “static peace” he felt while tripping on the drug DMT.
(My contribution to the discussion: sharing how self-conscious I feel about what to say or do at funerals.)
“As frightening as it may seem,” Ms. Cunningham said that night, “there are many amazing things that can occur and ways to grow and carry grief through the next chapters of your life, and this is the way we evolve — through moments that seem so painful but then have hidden miracles of ecstasy.”
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