The New York Times this week described a small group phenomenon involving discussion of the often avoided topic of death. In more than 40 cities across the nation people are gathering to discuss dying, led by a volunteer counselor, therapist or hospice worker.
These “death cafés” are an idea originally imported from Europe where they’ve been popular now for some time.
Some might conclude that such a group is morbid but death and dying — the one universal binding all together — is mysterious, terrifying, endlessly fascinating and worthy of conversation. It is a sign of maturity and health when a person can discuss and confront death — even his or her own. Ernst Becker in his Pulitzer Prize winning book “Denial of Death” described how the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud was so terrified of his own death that he promptly fainted when the topic was broached.
Older adults attend these groups for obvious reasons but young adults are attending, too, curious about death and perhaps having experienced the death of a grandparent or close friend. There is no age at which death does not elicit awe, confusion, dread and the need for understanding.
I found the report interesting for what was omitted. Pastors or rabbis were not mentioned as group leaders, although such persons deal with death on a more personal level than many other professionals and can offer hope and wisdom from scriptures and thousands of years of wisdom from their specific sacred traditions.
It is possible there is a direct link between the multiplication of these death café groups and the wane of organized religion. This might explain why this movement began in Western Europe where Christianity has disappeared at an alarming rate. Even the fact that fewer people are holding funerals creates the need for those who grieve to come to terms with death somehow on their own.
One of the strengths of religion is that it helps people grapple with and embrace the ultimate realities of life. Mocked for offering too much heaven to others, religion at its best can help believers to face honestly with reality of death and dying and contemplate what might lie beyond the grave.
These topics have been addressed — often times almost as second thought — in the Christian faith through hundreds of hymns, countless sermons, contemplation of the life and death of the saints and martyrs, speculation on the reality of life after life from sacred scripture, and words of consolation and comfort at funerals and memorial services in the face of life’s unspeakable tragedies and mysteries.
The Apostle Paul called death “the final enemy,” but this doesn’t have to mean that the enemy goes unaddressed. The topic must be contemplated even if never completely understood. If small group discussions help make that happen, it’s a good thing, but communities of faith can offer the healthiest, fullest way for adherents to navigate the mystery of death.
The Rev. Creede Hinshaw, of Macon, is a retired Methodist minister.