Now long gone is the 18-year-old Fauquier County boy I once was … might as well be dead. But the scribblings in his journal still live, as I’m now revisiting. To him then, death was an intriguing, romantic abstraction: something that propelled endless “whys” and “deep” thoughts about “the meaning of life,” and its ultimate purpose.
Now, a half-century later, as part of Rappahannock’s largely aging population, intellectual generalizations dissolve into particulars and specifics — with the intensely felt emotion that only non-abstractions can carry. And what once seemed trivial and burdensome is now invested with the weight of ritual:
“The refrigerator needs cleaning out,” she said softly, not rising from her hospice bed. “I want to go home and clean out the refrigerator.”
“I need to mow the grass,” said the emaciated man lying in his bed at home, momentarily waking from a sleep soon to end in dying, as his wife, sitting next to his bed, held his hand.
So the stories go at my very first visit to the “Death Café,” where I find, among the dozen attendees, a special, shared intimacy that seems only possible, ironically enough, among strangers.
“Yesterday, I had the most incredible experience,” volunteers another stranger. “I’m outside working in my garden when this shadow of wings floats across the ground. I don’t see the bird itself, only its shadow. It’s a hawk, I can tell, looking for something to kill. Somehow, it feels beautiful.”
Death Café: the name says it all, doesn’t it? A place to enjoy coffee, tea and crumpets while having the conversations you’re normally afraid to death of having: about death, dying and end-of-life decisions. The idea originated with Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz in an effort to make death no longer a taboo subject.
“I am never so in tune with the truth as during one of these soirées. And I have the impression that the assembled company, for a moment, and thanks to death, is born into authenticity,” he writes in his book, “Cafés Mortels: Sortir la Mort du Silence” — “bringing death out of silence” and its tyrannical secrecy.
There are now more than 2,000 Death Cafés around the world, including occasionally here in Rappahannock, led by Martha Hughes. To find specific dates and places, if not in Rappahannock then in nearby venues, go to deathcafe.com. In fact, Winchester’s Steamy Cafe (33 East Piccadilly St.) is scheduled to host a Death Cafe at 1 p.m. Aug. 2.