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How To Live With Death

by Philip Matthews

Stuff, The Press, The Dominion Post, October 2018

Are you death-wise or death-literate? Philip Matthews hears about coffee, cake and mortal coils from death cafe host Melanie Mayell.

Death is the undiscovered country, Hamlet said. The great beyond. What is there to ask? Christchurch artist Melanie Mayell has six questions for us to consider. They act as conversation starters if talk stalls at one of her death cafes.

Here they are: What is your experience with death? What scares you about death? Should people be able to choose to end their lives? What would you like your funeral to be like? Do you believe in life after death, ghosts, reincarnation? How do you feel about ageing?

These are 3am questions exposed to the light of day. And of course there are no right or wrong answers, just as there is no right or wrong way to respond to death.

"Grief is as individual as our fingerprints," Mayell says over a mid-morning coffee. "It doesn't look the same for any of us."

She learned that when she did a course with Christchurch grief specialist Dr Lois Tonkin.

Mayell has been running death cafes in Christchurch and sometimes elsewhere – recently, Invercargill – since the start of 2016. At one a month, that adds up to more than 30.

A death cafe is exactly what it sounds like. Strangers come together over coffee and cake and talk about the big subject.

"It's not grief support," Mayell says. "So it may not suit someone who's recently bereaved. They may be too sad to talk about it. We don't give advice, we don't have an agenda. We don't have speakers. There's not a theme."

Now that we know what it is not, what is it?

"The whole purpose of death cafe is to create a more death-wise, death-literate community. The more comfortable we are or aware that life is finite, we make different choices in the way we live our lives. The research suggests that we live lives with more vitality, more purpose, more authenticity. "Not just 'hedonistic, I do what I want'."

If you are Buddhist or Christian, you already have clear ideas about what death is, what it means and what, if anything, lies beyond. There are instruction manuals and guidelines. But many of us are post-religious and live in a society where death is mostly invisible: we stay healthy for longer, child mortality rates are low and people are less likely to die at home.

"We have stripped out a lot of our old ceremonies from big life transformations. They have been stripped back and become so bare that they've lost meaning and beauty and sacredness."

It all started for Mayell when she went on a nine-month-long global holiday with her family. An active photographer, she took pictures along the way and when she returned, assembled them based on colour. She "kept coming back to the white album", the pale images that gave her a sense of peace.

She put them together with appropriate quotes, from Aristotle to Metallica​, and compiled a book she self-published, titled Goodbye: For Times of Sadness and Loss. It was not necessarily about death, but grief in its broadest sense.

"I quickly realised we grieve over loss of different kinds," she says. "Loss of health, loss of relationships. During the earthquakes, the loss of home and feeling displaced. Through huge shifts and changes in my own life. "My marriage ended, I had to shift into shared custody of our children. It was a huge loss, from having them all the time."

That was a form of grief that she thinks she may even have predicted: "I believe now, looking back, that I created that book in advance to support myself through my own grieving. The book was well down the publishing track when my marriage ended."

At around the same time, the first death cafes started in London, based on an idea by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz​, who believed the French suffered from "tyrannical secrecy" about death, and created "cafes mortels" to bring death out of silence, as he put it. The combination of coffee, cake and mortal coils was picked up in the English-speaking world by Jon Underwood. Now there are more than 6000 death cafes in 56 countries.

Talk might be practical or philosophical or it might be spiritual. Fear of death comes up often, as do conversations about the right to die and questions about cremation or burial. There are conversations about the afterlife and near-death experiences. "It's made my life easier, just the willingness to have these conversations," Mayell says. "So when something difficult has happened, like my uncle dying, I knew who to call, I knew what to do. It was still a shock but there was a certain peacefulness in knowing what the steps were.

"Certainly in my own life, the awareness that life is finite has shifted me into making different choices and decisions, and really celebrating the moments with my own children rather than putting it off and thinking I will do it later. Death does remind us that we don't have forever in this body. Do what you love, do what's important."


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