This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Delaney Nolan, whose story, “The Ugly,” appears in issue 17.
The Death Café
I go to the Death Café in April. It’s held in the Johnson County Senior Center, a brick building on Linn.
We go around the room and introduce ourselves. It’s a funny cross-section of Iowa’s death-intrigued: one sprightly lady in a headband who volunteers at the Iowa Parrot Rescue; next to her, a historian who specializes in “grave-related paraphernalia.” An Indian man explains that he’s a Jainist and wants to share some of Jainism’s views; he inadvertently quotes Plath: “Dying is an art,” he says, “and I would like to share that art.” A large bearded man holds a book on meditation and cheerfully cites an interest in Zen death poems.
The purpose of the Death Café, as the name may suggest, is to talk plainly about death.
That day, we begin with the death of pets.
“I found that when I had an animal die, I was more upset about that than the people that died,” says a woman named Carol. The grave historian nods enthusiastically.
The lady with the parrots advocates writing your own obituary, but says she procrastinates, so she hasn’t done it yet. People laugh—there’s a surprising amount of laughter in the Death Café, parallel, I imagine, to the way people make jokes on the set of a scary movie.
Rahul, the Jainist, explains that in his faith, “starving to death” is sometimes recommended. Letting yourself die when you can no longer follow Jainist rituals will keep your karmic load from increasing. “Gradually, you stop taking solids. Then you stop taking liquids. And when one week or two weeks arrive, [you] just pass away and die.”
Somebody adds, “That’s kind of the point of the advanced directives too, to write out that you don’t want somebody putting tubes in you,” and at this there are little noises of agreement all around the room. There’s scorn for meddling doctors, ambulance medics who automatically give CPR, families who cling.
The idea of having control of your own death is a subject we return to again and again, and in a sense that’s the end game of the Death Café. Discussing a problem, like writing about a problem, is a method of control, and as we all talk about death—our own death, others’ deaths, obituaries, breathing tubes—it’s clear that we’re trying to air out cobwebs, let some light into an attic where we’re usually too scared to tread.Continue Reading