“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. So wrote Benjamin Franklin in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789. Of course, now, even taxes are not as certain as they were in the 18th Century – especially if you can route your income through offshore tax havens and ‘dodgy’ Trusts! Death, however, remains unchangeably constant. “There are only two things that unite all human beings, whatever their colour, creed, economic status – we are all born and we will all die”, says Mollie Lord. “But whilst we are all happy to talk about pregnancy and birth, death is a major social taboo subject. People tend to be afraid of talking about death and dying.”
Mollie is the convenor of the Hay-on-Wye Death Café, a monthly meeting where people gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. Death Cafés were introduced to the UK by Jon Underwood in 2010. Underwood had been inspired by the earlier work of Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist who founded Cafés Mortal in Switzerland and France from 2004. Since 2011, there have been over 970 Death Café meetings in countries stretching from Switzerland to Canada; and from the United States to Australia.
Mollie’s introduction to the Death Café movement came entirely by chance, as she happened upon a feature article in the New York Times supplement that accompanies the Observer Sunday newspaper in the UK. Mollie originally settled in Hay with her husband when he was forced to retire from his job as Academic Librarian at the University of London due to ill-health. It wasn’t just the lure of the books that drew them to Hay – their two daughters were also based nearby in Hereford at the time. Mollie was hit hard by her husband’s death shortly after they had settled in Hay, and – despite her training as a nurse and her experience as a Mental Health Nurse Practitioner in The Maudsley in London, and with The Priory Hospitals Group – she admits that talking about death was not something that had featured prominently in conversations at home or at work. Reading about the Death Café that had just started meeting in New York, Mollie realised that this was a simple, but potentially very effective, way of getting people to think about death and dying – not out of morbid curiosity, but rather as a means of confronting ignorance and fear, and allowing people to make the most of their lives in the meantime.
The first Hay on Wye Death Café took place in September 2013, and has continued to meet at The Institute of Arts & Ideas (the Globe) on the second Tuesday of each month since then. There are typically around 10 to 12 attenders at each meeting – and the group comprises a mix of men and women, older and younger people, Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians, Humanists, and those with no particular religious or philosophical outlook. It is this eclectic mix of people, experiences and backgrounds that makes the discussions at the Café so rich and – though it seems counter-intuitive – “so much fun!” Topics of discussion since last September have included reflections on the impact of mass deaths during the First World War; the options available to those who wish for a Humanist funeral; and the ethical and moral dilemmas presented by organisations who support assisted dying, such as Dignitas in Switzerland. Summarising the feedback from members at the July meeting, Mollie explains that “those who come along feel better from having taking part, and find that talking about death and dying in an open and constructive way, actually enriches their lives.”
Further evidence of the effectiveness of the Death Café approach, is found in the fact that – having first attended a Café meeting in Hay to see what it was all about – representatives from the hospice movement in Hereford have now set up a Death Café there too!
This feature was commissioned for wayonhye.org – the website for news and information on all things related to Hay-on-Wye, Powys