No chat about afterlife inside death cafés?

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We’ve been doing death, so to speak, at my house the last few weeks — working through the aftermath, talking about grief, that sort of thing. So I immediately was drawn to an Associated Press piece highlighting end-of-life discussions taking place in informal settings throughout the U.S. and in major cities worldwide.

Death Cafés, they call them:

It can be tough to get a conversation going if you want to talk about the late stages of dementia, your last will and testament or the recent passing of your mother.

Boy, is it ever, let me tell you. Especially if a heart attack was involved. It makes everyone think twice about eating the cocktail weiners, too

I digress …

“When you’re at a cocktail party and you lead off by saying, ‘What do you think about death?’ it’ll be, ‘C’mon, man, it’s a party! Chill out!’ says Len Belzer, a retired radio host from New York.

Belzer is among a growing number of people around the world who are interested enough in death to gather in small groups in homes, restaurants and churches to talk about it.

The gatherings, known as Death Cafés, provide places where death can be discussed comfortably, without fear of violating taboos or being mocked for bringing up the subject.

Organizers say that there’s no agenda other than getting a conversation started — and that talking about death can help people become more comfortable with it and thereby enrich their lives.

AP takes us inside one such gathering in New York City, where a group of six asks questions, laughs and eats biscotti while chatting about their eventual demises or those of others they’ve known.

This is all well and good. And I imagine the biscotti was homemade and the tea was steamy and the weather was nice and cool. But isn’t there something missing? Oh yes, the afterlife. The hope. The eternal aspect of a soul that continues on. The part that really matters.

Ghosts dance throughout this piece. We have an allusion to a “Methodist wake” that one guest attended. (I have only attended Methodist visitations and funerals and Catholic wakes in my 40-plus years on this side of life.) The same guest introduced the topic of Christian vs. Jewish funerals, but we learn nothing of the differences in this story, so you’re on your own if you’d like to know more.

Leaving our yummy refreshments, we move from the apartment to Manhattan’s Trinity Church, where the Rev. Mark Bozzuti-Jones discusses the Death Cafés that take place there:

“I suspect every person probably has a different understanding of death, the afterlife, no afterlife,” Bozzuti-Jones said. “The different views may provide some form of healing.”

And … cue the crickets. That’s all we get. No discussion of insightful comparisons between the customs or rituals or beliefs of a city rich with faith diversity born of a melding of cultures. No chatter about how different religious groups view the existence of afterlife, at what point it begins and the deities that will reign.

I was hungry for more than dessert by the end of the piece. What a wasted opportunity to really delve into the meat of what people think happens after their physical life ends. I have a feeling the conversation was much richer than a woman who wanted to slip a good-looking corpse her phone number. Maybe someone else will fill us in on the important parts of the discussion, instead of assuming the fluff will satisfy us.

About Tamie Ross

Tamie Ross is a wife, mom, writer and all-around crazy-about-life girl now battling autoimmune disease. Her 20-year journalism career included stints as religion editor for The Oklahoman, online editor for The Christian Chronicle and freelancer for clients ranging from The Associated Press to United Methodist News Service. She has won state and national awards for her personal columns and editorials.

  • Darren Blair

    Did the reporter even think to ask about that stuff?

    That’s what I’d like to know?

  • stanz2reason

    End of life, end of consciousness. The notion of a continued existence seem to be unlikely and the result of wishful thinking. I imagine the experience, if you can call it that, is similar to that of a really deep sleep. You’re body breaks down via fairly straightforward biological processes. A portion of your genetic makeup is passed to your offspring, if you had any. The memory of your actions will be limited to the memories of those who witnessed them, which will fade in time as those people pass on. If you were fortunate enough to contribute some sort of physical item left behind or accomplish something worthy of being remembered by people beyond those involved in your immediate life, this will serve as the most enduring evidence of your existence.

    • TopRahamic

      Why does continued existence seem to be unlikely? What is the evidence for that viewpoint? Your assertion that it is a result of wishful thinking is undermined by Buddhist and Hindu religious perspectives. For example, ending the cycle of continued existence is the precise goal of spiritual development in Hindu tradition.

      And you compare death to sleep as if that explains it, but there are a lot of basic, fundamental things that we still don’t understand about sleep, either.

      • stanz2reason

        Consciousness appears to be an emergent property of a functioning brain. Alterations to the brain via cancer, stroke, drugs, traumatic injury etc. lead to fundamental changes in both the conscious & subconscious person that appear to support this position. In addition there is zero evidence to support the notion that consciousness exists outside the trappings of a physical brain. While the notion of a continued consciousness might ease the stress related to our inevitable dying, it does not seem to be a reasonable conclusion to draw from available evidence.

        I offered the description of sleep, particularly a deep sleep, to describe the conscious experience (if you can even call it that) of death. I’m referring to nights where your head hits the pillow and there is no conscious experience of dreaming or awareness of the passage of time. I’d imagine your conscious experience in the year 2200 will be the same as it was for 1800. I wasn’t suggesting a physiological equivalency of dreaming.

        • TopRahamic

          Consciousness =/= Existence. Without reflective surfaces I would see zero evidence for the existence of my eyes. I wouldn’t be able to see it, after all.

          You keep claiming that belief in an afterlife somehow ameliorates the awareness of our own mortality, but you haven’t explained how or why that should be the case. And that assumption–and it is an unfounded assumption–is contradicted by the practice of ancient, well-established religions which seek, as their main spiritual goal, to AVOID any kind of afterlife.

          • stanz2reason

            Consciousness =/= Existence.

            While our existence might not be completely dependent on consciousness (ie. we don’t stop existing when we’re sleeping), it is dependent on a functioning brain. If we’re talking about our ability to experience things, to think about things, to feel one way or another of things, to be aware of anything, etc. it seems reasonable to call such a thing consciousness, this does appear to be a function of a living brain. Lacking the ability to do any of these things makes me curious what exactly we’re referring to here as existence.

            Without reflective surfaces I would see zero evidence for the existence of my eyes. I wouldn’t be able to see it, after all.

            The nerves and muscles of your eyes would still be able to communicate with your brain making you aware of the existence of your eyes. Standing in a dark room and poking your eyes should be sufficient to demonstrate that. However without the nerves to send the signals of physical stimulus or a brain to receive and translate that information into a sensory experience then it seems without such things, there really is no you.

            You keep claiming that belief in an afterlife somehow ameliorates the awareness of our own mortality, but you haven’t explained how or why that should be the case.

            Views on death vary from culture to culture and from person to person. If more people felt death would offer a better experience than being alive I’d expect to see mass suicides on a worldwide scale. That people, in general, take efforts to put distance between themselves and the end suggests that people, in general, enjoy being alive. The prospect of losing that, for many, is profoundly sad. It might follow that the possibility of continuing that life is one worth embracing, if for no other reason as to avoid dealing the possibility of that life not continuing. Again the variance of views on death make any sort of singular characterization nothing short of a generalization, however I feel this one is applicable to many people.

            I feel that the divine, the afterlife, the supernatural, etc. are concepts soley the product of the human mind. It helps people create structure for a worldview and identify their place in it. That a culture might teach to avoid the afterlife still offers a continued existence after natural death.

          • wlinden

            So, do you two have any comments on JOURNALISTIC issues, rather than debating survival?

          • stanz2reason

            There don’t seem to be journalistic issues here though I’m curious what warranted ALL CAPS. I can’t speak for these ‘death cafe’ chats and how the conversations typically run, but the article makes it sound like the discussion of death is a general one dealing with many matters of the living (different types of funerals, financial planning, how we discuss the topic with children) and mentions the afterlife as one of numerous topics discussed. It didn’t seem like the AP article was attempting to expand on the afterlife discussion, even if that’s what some wanted to here. The author of the original piece said she was hungry for further discussion on the topic. I offered my opinion.

          • Worthless Beast

            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/policies/

            Don’t feel bad. I made the same mistake. I found out by clicking around other articles on this blog. This place is apparently “discussion of how religious issues are handled in news stories” only.

            I clicked the article from the front page and mistook this for an any other / general discussion type blog, too. Unfortunately, while I have worked for a coupe of small town newspapers in the past, I only worked in the capacity of a graphic designer, not actual journalism, so I’m of no help here.

          • stanz2reason

            I see that the focus on this particular blog seems to be journalism, but when the author says ““No discussion of insightful comparisons between the customs or rituals or beliefs of a city rich with faith diversity born of a melding of cultures. No chatter about how different religious groups view the existence of afterlife, at what point it begins and the deities that will reign. I was hungry for more than dessert by the end of the piece.”, it seems an appropriate time to add. I’m not the slightest bit sorry.

    • Levedi

      You keep saying there is no evidence, but there is evidence if you consider the testimony of eye witnesses evidence. I think perhaps you should define what you consider valid evidence.

      • stanz2reason

        The questionable heresay of eye witness testimony is, to me, not sufficiently compelling enough to overcome the complete lack of physical evidence, especially in light of the observations of the change of a person in a very clear ways upon alterations of brain via injury, drugs or some other means. It seems reasonable to suggest that upon brain death, the individual that you consider you, that is the conscious experiencer of things, is gone as well. Valid evidence, for me, would be something physically demonstrable and otherwise inexplicable. Until such time when that evidence comes to light, it’s irrational to suggest some sort of continuance of existence.

    • Worthless Beast

      So, what is it you most enjoy in life? Coming to boards like this one just to assert that you’re *better* than other people? I mean, really… People like you on the Internet are a dime a dozen, coming along to puff out your chest and say “I’m not afraid of the abyss” and go on and on about how “notions of an afterlife may give comfort and hope to people” (but you’re stupid if you actually believe in and are comforted by such notions).

      Nobody here is preaching “you must believe what I believe” or saying “join my religion now or go to hell!” – The blogger merely mentioned an absence of discussion of a topic that is important to a lot of people. It’s fine to discuss what you believe, but to dismiss others out of hand with “What I said is true, end of story!” is beyond rude, even with “Science!” tacked on the end.

      Also, how can you be so sure that death is “just like deep sleep?” As far as I’m concerned, you aren’t going to know what death is like until you die, and then, you will only know what *your* death is like. I think, the absence of an afterlife, that one’s very last moment of consciousness or semi-consciousness must be like an eternity. I’ve been put under for dental surgery before and I did *not* experience “darkness.” I experienced sleepiness and then waking up with *no time* for me. Darkness was only that which was behind my eyelids in my last conscious moment before I was brought back up, so to me, “Darkness” and “Deep Sleep” are too much “somethings” for true, forever-lasting death. If I’d died while being worked on, I would have had that “feeling sleepy” forever for all I knew. When I die? Maybe I’ll have an NDE-type experience, light, visions of angels and all that. It won’t matter if it’s “real” to people like you, I’ll “go to Heaven” even if a “real Heaven” doesn’t exist.

      I truly hope that there’s something more (because I have an anxious, twitchy brain that just might give me a “bad trip” and a subjective Hell if Heaven isn’t real and there’s no one to pull me out of it). But, you know, even if you believe you have science on your side, you shouldn’t assert yourself as authority on subjective experiences.

      And I should know better than to reply to anyone with a Flying Spagetti Monster as an icon. FSM is the sure sign to me of someone who isn’t merely comfortable in their atheism but is one of those people who must stick their nose up in the air and let all others know how inferior they are.

      • JerseyPunker

        At no point did they suggest they were better than anyone else, puff out the chest, suggest anyone was stupid or anything else that you’ve suggested while basically doing so yourself. You’ve said a lot more about yourself with your baseless claims, presumptions and accusations. Up to your post I’d read nothing but polite discourse. You ought to give it a try some time.

      • stanz2reason

        So, what is it you most enjoy in life? Coming to boards like this one just to assert that you’re *better* than other people? I mean, really… People like you on the Internet are a dime a dozen, coming along to puff out your chest and say “I’m not afraid of the abyss” and go on and on about how “notions of an afterlife may give comfort and hope to people” (but you’re stupid if you actually believe in and are comforted by such notions).

        I’ve never asserted or suggested that I’m better that anyone, nor do I think engaging in name calling is a productive endeavor. In response to an article concerning the lack of discussion of the afterlife when talking about death, it seemed appropriate to add my POV as it’s relevant to the topic at hand. That you disagree, for whatever reason is your own prerogative, however I feel I deserve more civility that you’ve offered.

        “What I said is true, end of story!” is beyond rude, even with “Science!” tacked on the end.

        I’m curious why you’re putting in quotes and judging as rude things I never said. Putting words in my mouth to misrepresent both my POV and attitude is really what is rude here.

        how can you be so sure that death is “just like deep sleep?”

        I was offering a description for how I expect death to be (hence you have sentences with “I’d imagine…” or “I feel…” or “seem(s) to be unlikely… .) I was expressing an opinion, one I feel is an informed opinion, but an opinion none the less. I wasn’t offering something definitive.

        The “feeling sleepy” that you describe is the product of a functioning brain, or more specifically the result of chemicals altering the function of your brain to make you less aware of the pain that you would otherwise experience as a result of the dental work. You can speculate about how things might be when you die. For me I find the lack of evidence for any sort of experiencing of things outside of a functioning mind to make it something that is less likely than the alternative of the cessation of the entirety of the conscious you. You’re free to disagree for whatever reasons you see fit.

        I hope there’s something more as well. I hope I hit the Mega-Millions tomorrow. Hoping for the unlikely is fine. Asserting it’s truth or assigning a higher likelihood without reasonable cause is irrational. Observations of the fundamental changes to a person the result of alterations of the brain seem to suggest that the ‘you’ is a product of the brain, making ‘you’ disappear when your brain does. This seems the most reasonable position to hold until further evidence presents itself. I don’t assert myself as an authority on anything. I offer a point of view as well as evidence I feel supports that point of view. Nothing more.

        The FSM is no less a symbol than a cross icon. I doubt you’d suggest someone with a Christian symbol (or any other) that they are somehow uncomfortable with their position. Let me make it clear… I’m plenty fine with my position. While it is a symbol adopted by a number of atheists, that is not why I choose it. For me it is a symbol of secularism (rather than atheism). I don’t feel it makes me superior or inferior to anyone else.

        You seem very defensive. What I’ve posted is ultimately relevant to the topic at hand, that I’ve posted with civility & respect. Finally, and I’d take this to heart, that engaging in ad hominem attacks doesn’t harm me or support your views (whatever they might be) and offers a poor reflection of your character.

        • Worthless Beast

          I’m sorry. I was in a really pissy mood last night and, let’s just say, I’ve never met a Pastafarian as civil as you (are being right now). You initially struck me as a person who, especially viewing your argument TopRhamic – that gave me a picture of a person less interested in discussion than in telling people what to think and insinuating that they are “irrational” people unless their opinions agree with yours.

          Of course there is no evidence for an afterlife or the eternal soul or anything metaphysical that is going to meet the criteria for anyone who looks for only physical evidence. Some people, however, think more in subjectives and possibilities than with a straight, materialistic mindset. These two mindsets are never going to meet in the middle. In fact, I’m *afraid* to even talk about my own, weird “arty” interpretations on what might be at length for fear of being ridiculed by materialists and religion-heavy people alike. I wouldn’t go to a live Death Cafe because of my fear. I feel (more comfortable in online settings because I am behind a screen), but still uncomfortable in online settings because there is *always*, *always* some straight-minded materialist around to talk about how irrational it is to think in any other way.

          Perhaps discussion of the afterlife was glossed over, to the original blog-poster’s annoyance, for a very good reason. There is NO safe place to discuss such things. People inevitably judge one another and or disguise condescension for compassion.

          Again, I’m sorry I was defensive and pissy. (For the record, I get as butt-clenched defensive if I see an icon with a cross in it or a John: 316).

          • stanz2reason

            Apology accepted. Its forgotten.

            For some like myself we find evidence in the physical world, while not the only source of knowledge, to be the most compelling. It appears the conscious experiencer is strongly linked to a functioning brain, to the point where the former being inseparable from the latter seem the most rational default position. The suggestion of an afterlife begs the question of on what grounds you’re making that claim (or at the least suggesting why its a plausible position).

  • Peter_J88
  • Y. A. Warren

    I was left alone at the hospital bedside, at the age of nineteen and pregnant, to watch as my mother-in-law died of brain cancer. I was forbidden to ever mention that we were losing her or to tell her good-bye. My daughter and her two toddler daughters took turns with me as we watched my husband in a coma for ten days and after he received a heart transplant. When my daughter, the mother of two daughters, was diagnosed with cancer, I became obsessed with sorting out my beliefs about the purpose of life and what happens after our physical lives are over.

    I have blogged about my thoughts on the subjects for two years at OneFamilyManyFaiths.blogspot.com, sort of an online death discussion. A collection of these entries has just been released as a book, We’re Already Eternal, available on Amazon.com. You may find some of my thoughts interesting and applicable.

  • FW Ken

    Finally got around to reading the article, and I’m here to tell you, is hard to take seriously a program called a Death Cafe. It sounds like a Deathmetal eatery. Maybe like that one in Chicago serving unconsecrated hosts on a burger.

    Mulling over the critique that the article lacks substantive discussion of the afterlife, I would be fearful of such a discussion going in the circles illustrated in the comments on this thread. I can’t imagine that such a cheerful program would allow such theoretical discussions, but it would be nice to know if they happen, and how they are handled.

    • 8Pi

      The first image today in one of the local online papers was the Death Cafe symbol, the skull and crossbones on a cup. I almost vomited. I don’t understand the degree to which serious issues, sacred issues for some, are being altered into – “things” – is the only word I can think of.
      I wonder if the local philosophy group will now be focusing on death, although I doubt it. I awoke thinking how inundated I am with obituaries, which are prominent on online papers. That, and news that is rarely uplifting. It’s constant. The choice is to not read the online papers.
      I did quite a thorough contemplation of issues around death 15 years ago. It didn’t help anything. Of course, no one would offer “Life Cafes” because that’s what is supposed to happen in cafes, except that there are few people who wihs to talk – in the U.S. anyway – to strangers in cafes.
      These enormously popular, and seemingly massive, attachment movements further convince me that I must be an alien. I don’t get it. But I’ve got to remember that it only SEEMS that “the world” is getting involved in such “things” as this. Isn’t that right?

  • Worthless Beast

    Having clicked around the blog…

    I want to apologize to the keepers of the Get Religion blog for my comments below. I’d clicked on this story from the front page and didn’t bother to look at the comments policy. I looked in on the comments, and considering that people seemed to be just letting fly with their opinion on the subject itself (rather than the journalism), I thought that this was like any one of the other blogs on Patheos, where people are encouraged to let fly with their opinions. I am sorry for the mistake and would welcome a deletion of my commentary if it is fitting. Perhaps that is the danger of having an article appear on the Patheos front page – idiots like me clicking on it and assuming that they’ve clicked on a blog like any other.

    As a reader of news, I would like to know whether or not these events have any serious back and forth about the afterlife or if it’s glossed over for fear of people throwing cafe-chairs at each other. Maybe media outlets don’t want a lot of useless fighting glutting up their opinion boards. Fluff is safe.

    Again, I am sorry for my lack of paying attention and violating comment policy.


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