I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived — and dying I will tend to later,” said Stoic Greek philosopher Epictetus. Inspired by the Cynics — followers of the philosophical school of Cynicism — Stoics embraced reasoning and accepted mortality to get a grip on life. Similarly, the Death Café initiative, which started in the United Kingdom in 2011, aims “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives”. Influenced by the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, the Death Café model was developed by Jon Under-wood and Sue Barsky Reid in London.
At a Death Café session, strangers gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. The group discusses death with no agenda, objectives or themes. The Death Café’s website asserts that “it is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counselling session”. After spreading across 51 countries since September 2011, the Death Café has come to India now. More than 10 sessions of Death Café have been held in various cities in India, including Hyderabad and Bengaluru, since February this year. From losing their dear ones to what is a definition of good death to the pressure of crying at the funeral, the participants from all walks of life talk about the most significant event of their lives — death. “Death Café operates on no expert model. Topics have ranged from the funniest reaction one has had towards someone’s death to why selfies are not considered respectful when taken beside a dead person. How funerals and weddings are similar, how grief is a social issue and the pressures to cry. What we want to be done with our bodies after our death, to which ‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’ are pending. Would we choose immortality, if given a chance and can bodies be preserved for life again. Every cafe I discover that there is so much to reflect on death to make living better,” said Dr Sneha Rooh, a palliative physician and body therapist, who organises the Death Café in India.
Dr Rooh came across the Death Café initiative when she was looking for ways to ask people about death. “I was writing a research paper on what constitutes a good death and even my colleagues would say, ‘why are you so obsessed with death?’ I saw that we need a space like this in India too and started right away,” said Dr Rooh.
Talking about death is largely considered taboo in Indian society. While referring to death people often say “passed away” or “left us” and avoid using the word dead. “People don’t want to talk about death in India. Death is not looked at as a natural process,” said Prasad Dandekar, head of the Radiation Oncology department at H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital. A 2014 research found that “in people’s imagination, dying seems dreadful. However, these perceptions may not reflect reality". The study, which was conducted by scientist Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina at Chappel Hill, United States, compared the affective experience of people facing imminent death with that of people imagining imminent death. Astonishingly, the research found that “the experience of dying — even because of terminal illness or execution — may be more pleasant than one imagines”.
“I think people fear death — or are unhappy about dying — for all sorts of reasons,” said philosopher Eric Olson, a professor at the University of Sheffield in England. “Some fear a bad time in the afterlife. Some are upset because of what they’re going to miss by dying. But I think many people are simply confused about what makes it bad to die and are unable to give any clear answer to the question of why it’s upsetting.” Mr Olson also added that talking about death in a calm and rational way can help us to think clearly about it. “Thinking clearly about something dreadful — whether it is your own death or the death of a loved one, or poor health, bankruptcy, divorce, or what have you — often makes it appear less dreadful. If we understand something clearly, it often appears less bad than it does if we try not to think about it,” he said.
As fear of death and its impact continues to remain a hotly debated topic, Death Café is gaining popularity in urban parts of India. "I will be hosting Death Cafés in every place I go and screening movies that will help bring different perspectives on death and living. I have started holding Death Cafés in schools and universities. A recent one at TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai) was incredibly enriching for everyone. In October there is a session in Puducherry and in November I will hold one in Goa,” said Dr Rooh.