When you bake a cake there is usually a celebration to come. Cake is the universal food of life milestones. Birthdays, weddings and baby showers are all marked by a cake of some kind and whether elaborate or simple, the act of baking one for someone else is an act of love. The flour and sugar and carefully poured batter, the special touches of strawberries or whipped cream filling along with the choice of icing and decor are all delicious elements. As in life, the recipe is up to the baker. Some are sweet, some are fruity, some are meticulously designed, some messy and there can be mishaps along the way. Milestones and memories are marked by cake.
At the Death Cafe, cake celebrates the final milestone of life, that marker at the end of the road that everyone will come to in their own time. Cake is served at Death Cafes all over the world, and is so important, it is one of the few rules of Death Cafe. Cake must be served.
Death Cafe is a movement, started in London in 2011, for people who wanted to talk about death without judgement, anxiety or disapproval from friends and loved ones uncomfortable with the topic. The discussion ranges from legal trusts and wills to how other cultures deal with death and participants share personal stories from death in their own families.
As I found out when I attended death cafe, its not a grief counseling group. There were a few people there still obviously grieving but there was laughter, a good amount of death related comedy and a discussion that focused more on life and living it to the fullest before coming to that final milestone.
The Death Cafes are usually hosted in a home although the London group currently has a “Go Fund Me” account to finance an actual, commercial Death Cafe. The meeting I attended was in a Sacramento neighborhood. A small sandwich board near the front door held a sign that said, “The Death Cafe is Open” and I walked in to see a circle of 12 chairs in a cozy living room and the kitchen beyond that buzzing with activity as people were greeting each other before the meeting.
There is never an agenda at Death Cafe but rather topics picked out of a hat to discuss within the group. When I was there the topic was bucket list items. Penelope, a woman in her 70’s is saving for a trip to Lapland to sleep in a transparent dome under the Aurora Borealis while Muhannad, a new immigrant from Iraq loves Pink Floyd and was looking forward to seeing David Gilmour and Roger Waters in concert.
The moderator turned to me at one point and asked me, “well, Cristina…whats on your bucket list?” I was embarrassed not to have something to say. Nothing came to mind. I briefly talked about wanting to travel more and went off on some tangent about my older daughter seeing 9 countries in the last 6 months and saving for more travel. I realized I was deflecting the question but was surprised to come up blank when thinking about what I might like to do before I die.
This is one of the goals of Death Cafe. When contemplating your own death, you are forced to look at your life and what you want out of the time you have left. The group allows you to step back from your “have tos” and take a closer look at your “want tos”.
While the concept of Death Cafe sounds morbid and conjures images of goth subculture, the people at this Death Cafe were cheerful, funny and full of interesting stories. A songwriter, an actor, a mental health specialist, a retired woman in her 70’s, a college student, an engineer and others who meet on the first Monday of each month to share thoughts and dessert as they work through their own questions and feelings about death and dying.
After one member shared a recent National Geographic article on families in India who live with the corpses of loved ones to aid the transition of grieving lost family members, the moderator called for a break and everyone gathered in the dining room and kitchen. A table laid out with beautiful linens and hand made table signs that read, “acceptance”, “Live Life” was topped with not one but two cakes. Chocolate and white cake with strawberries. As the host cut into the white cake and laid the first piece on white china she smiled at me and handed the plate to a man next her. “Cake reminds us of the sweetness of life and why talking about death makes us more open to living fully”.
I truly enjoyed my evening at the Death Cafe and now understand how a deep dive into that final milestone brings life goals into clear focus and am now looking for ways to live my own life more fully. I may never make it Lapland but will think about my “want tos” and never see a slice of cake the same way again.