Shepherd Bliss: Dancing with Death at Death Cafes
“I have an appointment with death this evening,” I explained, smiling to friends upon leaving them. Their startled faces revealed feelings such as fear and a lack of understanding.
While living in Mexico, their Day of the Dead became my favorite holiday. I especially liked celebrating it in traditional villages, like Tepotzlan. The whole town seemed to go to the cemetery that night. Morbid? Not really, more like fun–feeding and dancing with one’s ancestors, remembering them in gratitude, teaching children to accept death and not be so afraid of it. But I was not on my way to a Day of the Dead celebration this time; I was going to a Death Cafe.
My teacher Scott Nearing lived to be 100 years old. He farmed berries, which is partly why I have farmed berries for over twenty years. After publishing dozens of books and building dozens of stone structures, Scott decided that his work and life were complete; he was not sick. He started fasting, while continuing to drink water, and invited friends over to say “good-bye.” He did not just fade away. It took many weeks for him to expire.
There was something old-fashioned and even spiritual about selecting the time of one’s own death and then inviting friends over. I have learned a lot about life, love, and death from the Day of the Dead and Nearings’ passage over thirty years ago, as well as from other death experiences. Death can be a teacher, if one moves beyond denial into acceptance—harder in some cases than others. A death awareness movement seems to be growing and takes various forms.
In addition to the inevitable death of individuals, entire species and empires decline and perish. We may be at such a time here in the United States. Nearing was a peace activist who railed against war, for which he was fired from teaching economics in college during World War I. He became a farmer and helped stimulate the back-to-the-land movement with the book that he and his wife Helen wrote—Living the Good Life. I am currently teaching an Ethics course at the Dominican University of California, where we openly discuss moral issues around death, including what it means to live a “good life,” which Socrates talked about. The Nearings continued their political work until they died. The United States economy is declining and the society as a whole is going through at least little deaths.
Birth and death both used to occur more at home than in hospitals. These events are, after all, quite normal. Everything that lives dies, including individuals, though it is hard to accept that each of us will perish. In fact, the psychologist Freud contends that the ego cannot imagine its death. Though I rationally know that I, too, will die, at times I forget. Some Buddhists say that it is wise to walk with death on your shoulder, or was it Socrates? The first version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead was apparently written in the eighth century.
I remember having had some real fun dancing with death. We used to have what were called “Bad Seed Parties” here in small town Sebastopol, in whose countryside my Kokopelli Farm rests. You dress up as your evil twin, or the one whom you long to be. I took the scythe that I use to cut grass, put on a mask, and a black coat and went as the Grim Reaper. I stayed in character the entire party. Even a former girlfriend did not recognize me. That was around two decades ago. I am now closer to my real and final death than back then. Some people still remember me from my embodying death.
Last year I heard about Death Cafes, which are spreading around the world. Cafes are places where you can go to eat and socialize. As I thought about the memorial services that I have been to, the best ones have good food and conversation about the departed friend’s life. That ancient “Harold and Maud” movie about the old lady and the young man couple who crash funerals was enjoyable; I guess you would call it a comedy. Even death can be humorous.
I went to a Death Café in Santa Rosa, California, last year. It was surprisingly invigorating. Many were from my nearby hometown, so my quilt-making friend Dena Bliss (not related) and I decided to host these free gatherings in our small town. This February I went to my second Death Café in Santa Rosa. Though the people differed, the format was the same and I once again left invigorated and animated by the open discussion of death.
It is hard to put into words what happens at a Death Cafe. What follows are my own personal, subjective impressions. One sits around tables with around half a dozen people, usually all strangers. And you talk openly about death. People from 22- to 72-years-old sat around our table. Some stories were about people who had died or were dying. We were not there to counsel each other or give advice. We were there to tell our own stories and listen to those of others, in a room full of people, tables, and good food. Yum! Yum! Our bodies and souls were fed.
Have you been touched by death? I imagine that you have. I was startled awake to love by both of the Death Cafes I attended. This year’s Santa Rosa host, Kathy Hoare, introduced us to the gathering–as we sat around tables in the cafe, eating delicious, home-made food–with the final words “Have fun!” And we did. Our table of half a dozen people eating and talking laughed a lot and felt connected, as we spoke openly about death–the ones that already happened, the ones currently in process, and the ones surely to happen.
It is not really something that I can explain well. I was recovering from food poisoning, which ended up being a blessing, reminding me of how wonderful health is and thus filling me with good energy. That passing illness helped me remember that there is a growing death awareness movement; Death Cafes are part of a return to more ancient and even spiritual perspectives on death.
Another example would be an art gallery near Sebastopol called the Funeria, which specializes in urns as vessels to contain the remains of a beloved. Most are quite beautiful, and often whimsical. In San Francisco there is a store called Love to Death and on the Hawaiian island of Maui there has been a Death Store for the last seven years.
On the morning of the recent Death Café, I wandered into our sweet Sebastopol library, next door to where a Sebastopol Death Cafe will happen March 8. My Graton friend Karin Lease was in the library care-taking an art show. We started talking about death, there in the midst of all the beauty.
Another person whom I met once soon came by and joined the death conversation. Karin mentioned a beautiful “Kiss of Death Statue” from Spain, which she later sent me a photo of, as well as a link to a video from deceased Buddhist teacher Alan Watts. The Spanish, as well as Mexicans, do not deny death as much as many North Americans. Nor do most indigenous people, like those in Hawai’I, deny death.
Karin also sent a poem by Howard Jacobson that invites us to “un-cage the dark bird,” which enables one “to fly.” The poet David Whyte writes about “Sweet Darkness.” Death can certainly evoke art forms, and seems connected in some mysterious ways to beauty and being alive. Death helped connect Karin and I at deeper levels; we are both dealing with death in our personal lives.
One of my own favorite poems, which I have even committed to memory, is Walt Whitman’s “O Living Always, Always Dying.” Whitman was a nurse during the Civil War, where death transformed him from being a minor to a major poet, perhaps the greatest 19th century American poet. His willingness to dwell within and witness the death of soldiers in the battlefield and care for them, from both sides, was what fed his poetry, including his tribute to the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Whitman kept singing praise to “the electric body,” knowing that it would soon pass. He took a Transcendentalist approach.
The first Death Cafe happened in September of 2011 in Europe. Over 520 now exist around the world; they are catching fire, as death can do, both in reality and as metaphor. More information at www.deathcafe.com.The website lists places where they occur around the world. Death can connect, as well as separate. It depends partly on how one responds.
Immediately after the Café, I recovered my puppy Winnie from her God-parents, who were caring for her during my absence. “My absence”—yes, someday I will be totally absent. Winnie and her four-footed puppy love girlfriend Rosie jumped all over me with their abundant love, reminding me that I am loved by dogs and those in our village who help care for Winnie.
PERSONAL MEMORIES OF TRAGIC DEATHS
I have experienced early deaths and recent deaths. I have grieved them, over the years, but not forgotten them. They guide me. I lived in Chile during “the other 9/11”–when the military over-threw the democratic government on September 11, l971. One of my best friends, Frank Teruggi, was tortured and executed. My sweetheart was also tortured.
More recently, the innocent 13-year-old Andy Lopez was killed last year in Santa Rosa by the first shot by sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus, who continued pumping six more shots into the dead boy’s small body, then handcuffing him, just to make sure. The combat veteran claims he thought the boy’s toy gun was real. Andy might have been my son, or yours. His unnecessary killing sent shock waves through our community, especially among Latinos.
The award-winning 2013 film “Fruitvale Station” is about the BART officer who killed African American Oscar Grant in Oakland. It stars an Oscar-winner as his mother and was produced by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker. The officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and imprisoned. We expect the Lopez family to win their wrongful death civil rights lawsuit and a compelling film to be made.
A beloved and talented member of the Veterans Writing Group that I have been a member of for two decades, Paul Duffy, took his own life recently. Death comes in many forms, some devastating to survivors.
These are the sorts of deaths that I carry, not only in my memory, heart, and soul, but in my body. I work to make sure they do not either silence or immobilize me in the quest for social justice.
Each death is unique and personal. We can recover from them. Death Cafes are not grief groups where people get counseling. They exist to talk and listen to stories about death, without judgment. They can be more fun than I would have imagined.
“It’s time to take death out of the closet,” Cynthia Sumner observed at the recent Santa Rosa Death Café. Death can awaken and enliven, as well as diminish and defeat—your choice. In my case, I am closer to my death date than my birth date, here on my organic farm, where I notice decay and death every day, as well as in my own body.
“Whenever we bring shadow, shameful or disowned material to the light by acknowledgment through speaking it and sharing with others,” noted our Santa Rosa host Kathy Hoare a few days after the Café, “the act of doing this releases life energy within us and lifts our burden of carrying the unspoken.”