Death Café: A global initiative now in India asks, what’s your idea of a good way to go?
Over coffee and cake, people are invited to discuss their ideas about death.
“My mother says that when people die they become angels,” a 12-year-old girl says, like one would expect. But, she goes on, “there they form a group and think about what they want to learn. Once they decide, they jump down to the womb of a mother.”
She completes her sentence, passes the speaking bowl and the next child talks.
This was at a Death Café session for kids in Hyderabad — an afternoon of a cake, snacks and tea over discussions about death. The junior group comprised nine children aged 4 to 16.
“In Death Café sessions, we bring a set of people together and discuss death, a taboo subject in almost all societies,” says Dr Sneha Rooh, 30, a specialist of palliative medicine based in Hyderabad who has been organising the meets.
The café, she explains, is not a healing exercise; there are no grief counsellors present.
Instead, it is a franchise of an initiative launched in the UK in 2011, by a business executive named Jon Underwood, who passed away this year.
In the six years since he started Death Café, volunteers in 51 countries have held a total of 5,065 sessions. They all follow a set of quirky rules publicised on the website — there must be cake; there must be no ‘experts’; sessions must be open to all.
In India, Rooh has organised meets in four cities — Hyderabad, Chennai, Puducherry and Bengaluru — since February.
“I stumbled upon the Death Café concept while researching the idea of a ‘good death’. I realised then that this idea is not discussed much even in the medical community,” she says.
When she spoke to terminally ill patients, they had some fresh ideas. Some said that to leave behind a good photograph was their idea of a good death; for others, to settle all property affairs would be a good way to go.
“I decided to dig deeper. Since the guidelines were pretty simple, with few restrictions, I went ahead and set one up,” she says.
The event with the children was her ‘most daring’. “It didn’t feel that way when we were doing it, but before it I was really anxious,” Rooh says. “It was a really revealing one though. As the children spoke about their imagined and real understanding of death, I realised how different ways of coping can be.”
The first session she organised was simpler. “It was an informal session with friends and acquaintances. We gathered at a dargah in Hyderabad at night. It seemed like a fine venue to start where the dead are buried near the divine,” she says.
Some of those present had lost dear ones and started talking about them.
Filmmaker Gopala Krishna, 31, who organises heritage walks in Hyderabad, talked about the book, Last Lecture. “This bestseller is about a series of lectures where top academics are asked to think deeply about what matters to them and compress all the knowledge they want to deliver in one final lecture. The idea got everyone thinking,” he says.
Since then, there have been eight session in Hyderabad, two sessions in Bangalore, two in Chennai and one in Pondicherry. Some people have attended one and kept coming back.
“It is fascinating to see how different people approach death,” says Balendu Rashmi, 26, a programme coordinator with an NGO. “In the first session, memories of times when I thought I was dying came back to me — once when I choked on food and could not breathe, and an earlier time when I thought I was dying because my periods had started.”
Once, Rashmi says, a Palestinian attended and talked about how, back home, it was a matter of pride for people to discuss how many members a family had lost in the cause of their motherland.
The café is currently travelling with Rooh, who is on a national campaign to spread awareness about palliative care. In every state she visits, she plans to conduct a session of Death Café.
“I plan to travel to Maharashtra and Goa in December and Delhi in January,” she says, adding that the sessions are helping her as a practitioner.
“The fact there is no research type questionnaire is useful,” she says. “It widens the ambit and everyone leaves a little enriched about something they have not discussed in this way.”