Last spring I spent some days wandering around downtown Asheville; I felt a strong need to be around people. I was surprised to find a ‘Before I Die’ wall on one of the major thoroughfares. This was a chalkboard with one sentence repeated over and over again: “Before I Die I’d Like to_______________.” Passersby were invited to fill in the blank with chalk that was always available in a little cup.
People had written things like: make a difference, go to Paris, be loved, be happy. I filmed there one day, which you can see here:
There was a sign on the wall that told who sponsored the wall. It was a group called “Third Messenger.” Another thing they sponsored was something called “Death Café.”
When I got home I looked the group up online and found that, unfortunately, they weren’t going to be having another Death Café for a few months.
When the Café finally happened it was totally different than I’d imagined. I thought it would be a bunch of grieving, lost souls like me, sharing about people who had died, like a grief support group. Instead it was in the spirit of the ‘Before I Die’ Wall: What can you do in your life now to make your death a time of peace, not regret? What shift do you need to make in your priorities? What do you need to start doing? What do you need to stop doing?
We started with a guided meditation where we were asked to imagine ourselves on our deathbed in extreme old age. What would we want to have done in our lives? Who would we imagine to be with us as we die? Then we imagined dying in 10 years, then 1 year, then 1 month, then tomorrow. By that time the reality of death was quite vivid.
After that we broke into small groups of 5 or 6 and talked for an hour. At first it felt awkward, of course, but it was amazing how quickly my group began to share at a very deep, intimate level. And from the way none of the groups wanted to stop at the end of that hour, other people had the same experience. I’d never before experienced such a shift with strangers. Quite remarkable.
A member of my group is a hospice nurse, and she said that people die in all sorts of ways, just like they’re born in lots of different ways, but they all get to the place of peace before they die. I liked hearing that. She also said she was hesitant to mention it because she doesn’t feel like it’s helped her at all with her fear of death.
What I found out is that Death Café is an international movement that started in England four years ago. On the website, they say “Our objective is to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” In other words, when we recognize we are going to die we take life more seriously. (http://deathcafe.com)
There is such a taboo in our culture about speaking about death, and Death Café is trying to change that. There are Death Cafés in many cities in the U.S., and if there isn’t one in your city, the website has a guide to starting your own. I left that first night knowing I’d be back every time I could. I was at one last night. I’ll be back again.