Death and dying: a taboo subject?

On the 13th May, I attended the Dying for Life Festival in Cambridge. This was one of the many events happening all over the country as part of Dying Matters Awareness Week.  The festival was the first of its kind and was developed from the success of the death cafes that have been taking place in different venues around Cambridge for the past 18 months.

The death cafe was created by Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz, who organised the first cafe mortal in 2004. Death cafes have since spread across Europe, North America and Australasia.

At a death cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death.  Our objective is to 'increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of (finite) lives'. http://deathcafe.com.

I saw this event as a good learning opportunity and a chance to hear from some experts in the field from the charities, Cruse Bereavement Care, Lifecraft and Hospice UK. The speakers offered sensitive and honest accounts of their professional and personal experiences of death and dying. There was a lot of time for group discussion and talking in smaller groups and pairs.

Although the main focus was on death and dying, there was also focus on life and the fact that our own mortality can have an impact on the way we live our lives. One aspect that resonated strongly with me throughout the day were the connections that I made with people in the room; not only during the directed exercises and discussions but also during the breaks and quieter, informal moments. This made me think of the therapeutic process and the parallels that emerged. I felt a general sense of respect, empathy and understanding. I also experienced active listening and unconditional positive regard.

There were times during the day when we were sharing very personal experiences, thoughts and feelings with complete strangers. Although I am familiar with this style of experiential learning, I found it to be a rare and privileged opportunity to talk openly about this particular subject. We were encouraged to think about and share our childhood beliefs and experiences of death, as well as our current hopes and fears about our own death and the process of dying.

We were reminded of existential philosophy and the theory that we alone are responsible for creating a meaningful life. Danish philosopher Soren Kirkegaard writes about 'existential angst'; the anxiety that we may feel as human beings in the realisation that we have absolute freedom to decide the course of our own life. We are responsible for making our life meaningful and living life authentically.

Authenticity was also written about by German philosopher Martin Heidegger. In his book, Being and Time, Heidegger suggests that the meaning of our being must be tied up with time. There is a limit, an end to our projects in life; a point at which everything comes to an end, whether finished or unfinished, and that limit is our death. This is what Heidegger calls 'being-towards-death'.

The festival was well attended and there were lots of positive comments at the end of the day. Death can shatter our sense of security about the world but it was evident that talking openly and honestly in this supportive environment helped to ease some anxieties. I don't see it as being morbid. I see it as being realistic. After all, death is an inevitable event that we all face.

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