Meditating on death in the midst of life July 29, 2017

Our first Death Café, after a hiatus of some six months, occurred shortly after the death of Jon Underwood, the iconic founder of the Death Café social enterprise.

As I sat listening to the conversation, I couldn’t help but reflect on this remarkable man, and that how without him what was taking place today, at this very minute, would never have occurred. He was a visionary who pioneered the community death conversation forum and death literate movement; an informal, agenda-free space for people to come together to have conversations about death-related issues. He was also provocative in that he confronted what for many people in the West is a difficult concept; the meaning of their mortality. In social research terms, we can define this as, amongst other things, community development, community capacity building, and the fostering or strengthening of individual resilience.

But Jon was simpler than that. His objective was and always will be, to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives”. How we all do this is uniquely individual, yet there is one thing I can be sure of, new trains of thought were generated in the minds of all those who have ever attended a Death Café I’ve had the pleasure to facilitate. And that is thanks to Jon, the first death activist and advocate I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to know.

As always, people came from all walks of life and brought with them varied life experiences, belief systems, and ways of being in the world. Being a palliative care nurse, one attendee “ponders death a lot”, while a medium gently observes, “I rely on death in order to do my work”. Another is curious and wants to know what Death Café is all about, another has friends with cancer which in turn make her think about her own death, and one works in pastoral care.

Topics ranged from the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, to palliative sedation and end-of-life or terminal restlessness. “What’s going on?” I wondered, “We don’t know” was the response. The impact of deathbed visions on the dying and their carers was another topic which was explored. How is it possible that these things occur, and how merciful is it that they do. We also explored a quote by E M Forster, American essayist and novelist; “Death destroys a man, the idea of death saves him”.

It is a provocative statement, and one, I feel, intended by the author to evoke a response, to make the reader or listener consider the contradiction in the statement, and to invite us all into a relationship with death in order that we might live our lives a little better, a little more meaningfully, and to work toward our spiritual destiny perhaps a little more consciously.

Thank you Jon, without you, none of this would have been possible.

Michele T Knight Written by:

Dr Michele Knight is a Social Worker, Social Scientist, researcher and independent scholar. Her interest and research in the end-of-life has its origin in the lived experiences of her own bereavements, her near-death and shared-death events, the returning deceased and attitudinal responses to those experiences. Since 2006, she has been extensively involved in community development, support and advocacy in both a professional and community services/voluntary capacity in the areas of bereavement and grief, hospital pastoral care, and academic lecturing/tutoring. Her PhD, Ways of Being: The alchemy of bereavement and communique, explores the lived experience of bereavement, grief, spirituality and unsought encounters with the returning deceased.

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