I'm back in the saddle after a total knee replacement at Peconic Bay Hospital in Riverhead. I had a fantastic experience at Peconic Bay (and I've had a lot of orthopedic experience in the last 5 years). It was far superior to Hospital for Special Surgery where I spent an nightmarish week last June.
I've had a lot of time to read while recuperating and one odd piece I came across was from "Quartz Obsession", an interesting and very diverse ezine. The article was about "death cafes". What follows is the content. Warning: if you don't like to think about your own death or death in general THIS IS NOT FOR YOU!
Quartz Obsession (March 2019)
Last year, 88-year-old Shatzi Weisberger staged her own “FUN-eral,” complete with coffin decorating and a display of her future burial shroud. She’s a graduate of New York’s Art of Dying Institute, a six-month course on thanatology, the study of death. Once a month, Weisberger also co-hosts a “death café,” where strangers “gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death.”
The death café movement began in 2010, when one Jon Underwoodin East London read an article about the cafés mortels pioneered by a Swiss sociologist to “bring death out of silence.” Underwood quit his job and published an online how-to guide for facilitators, with the goal of “helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” His first takers gathered at a Panera Bread in Ohio over tombstone-shaped cookies. Underwood died in 2017, but death cafés meanwhile spread to 65 countries, collecting members of all ages.
For many, dwelling on death when it’s not absolutely necessary seems morbid. But two decades of social psychology research suggest it actually has health benefits. Indeed, the (mostly female) “death positive movement,” which includes death doulas, mortician vloggers, and coloring book creators, seems to have gone viral online. Its subreddit has thousands of members. The 99-cent app WeCroak, which reminds people they’re going to die five times a day, consistently hovers near the top of the Health & Fitness category of the App Store.
Why are so many people eager to be reminded of their inevitable end? Let’s dig in.
People have been trying to live forever for… basically forever. But cheating death has always been a particular obsession for the rich. The pharaohs and emperors of the past have been replaced by tech moguls looking to grow their fortunes, and extend their lifespans. Google has an aging research venture called Calico; tech titans like Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos are investors in startups focused on longevity.
French historian Philippe Ariès spent almost two decades studying changes in Western attitudes of death and dying. In The Hour of Our Death, he writes that, for thousands of years, death took place within the community, and reminders of death were ubiquitous. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, tombstones were commonly engraved with the Latin phrases memento mori (“remember that you will die”) and hora fugit (“the hour flees”), along with hourglasses, skulls, and bones.
Attitudes have drastically changed since the Victorian era, when regular epidemics made death pervasive and post-mortem photographs abounded, sometimes depicting an entire family gathered around a deceased individual. Ariès notes that in the last two centuries, death has become an increasingly solitary, “invisible” phenomenon, in tandem with a cultural shift toward individuality and drastic improvements in healthcare. For those who could afford it, death was outsourced from the living room to the funeral parlor, and the dying moved from the home to the hospice. Today, only about 25% of Americans die at home. Hence, there has been a push to create new online and physical spaces, like death cafés, which exist to humanize death—and, in doing so, celebrate life.