Across the United States, cafés are booming. Back in 1964, only about 30 sidewalk cafés existed in all of New York City. Fifty years later, reports The New York Times (July 16, 2014), there were more than 1,300.
In 1971, a little place called Starbucks opened in Seattle. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. By 2015, there were over 22,500 around the world, and in many cities they now sit on every corner. People seem to enjoy iced coffee, handcrafted smoothies, pastries, sandwiches, and free Wi-Fi in a relaxed and comfortable setting. Starbucks is huge, and so is café culture.
But how about the Death Café? Not so huge. Not so relaxed. Not so comfortable.
The Death Café began in England just nine years ago. Although it sounds like a place for dying, it’s actually the opposite — it’s a place for you to make the most of your life through a greater awareness of death.
That’s surprising, isn’t it? Finding life through a focus on death.
As unusual as it is, it’s in line with the thinking of the apostle Paul, who said, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (1 Corinthians 15:36).
Death Cafés are basically discussion groups, and they can be virtually any size and structure. About all that unites them is the presence of people, tea and cake.
According to Presbyterians Today magazine (April/May 2018), a pastor’s wife named Linda Potter was drawn to the Death Café by personal tragedy. In just four years, she lost an aunt to brain cancer, her father to colon cancer, and a nephew to drowning. As she grieved these losses, she asked herself and others the question, “How do you want to live, knowing you are going to die?”
She began to lead Death Café discussions at First Presbyterian Church in Canton, New York, and recruited participants from nearby colleges. She discovered that “as we become more comfortable in talking about our death, we become more alive in our living.”
We need these discussions today, because we live in a death-denying culture.
Americans tend to emphasize youth and beauty, and spend huge amounts of money in attempts to reverse or mask the aging process. People don’t just buy moisturizer — they purchase “age-defying” moisturizer.
When we take sick people to hospitals, we expect heroic measures to be performed, even when patients are very old. Death typically occurs in hospitals or nursing homes these days, far from the center of family life.
And when it does happen, we don’t even like to say that a person has died — we euphemistically say they “passed away” or have “gone to a better place.” Literary types quote Shakespeare and say that a person has “shuffled off this mortal coil.”
One of my hopes for the novel City of Peace is that it will help people to see death in a new light. In the book, Pastor Harley Camden loses his wife and daughter in a European terrorist attack, and then moves to the town of Occoquan, Virginia, to grieve and to heal.
But he is quickly confronted by the mysterious murder of a young woman, the daughter of Occoquan’s Iraqi baker. Soon after, the entire town is threatened by an attack by Islamic terrorists.
Harley and his neighbors are forced to visit the Death Café, and there they find a language to talk about both death and the threat of death. As hard as this is, there is a benefit — their conversations make them more alive in their living.
City of Peace explores how good it can be to talk honestly about life, death … and the possibility of new life. I hope you’ll join the conversation.