Born Dying: Conversations from a Death Cafe

Born Dying: Conversations from a Death Cafe December 1, 2015

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Imagine attending a meet-up with friends at your local coffee shop. You might catch up on a hobby, discuss parenting, or share life hacks on your work-life balance. Instead, you talk about dying.

“Death Cafes” are among American’s most recent cultural phenomena. Across the U.S., people gather to muse—not about the weather—but about what happens on the way toward and after death.

My husband and I were introduced to this budding public practice by a dear friend and octogenarian. He’s a Christian-minister-turned-Buddhist-practitioner who carries a peaceful presence and “his papers,” detailed instructions for how he wants to die.

Our friend approaches what might be his last decade with a cool acceptance of the afterlife—a rarity, even amid the most faithful.

Humans, though tremendously diverse, share one common experience: we all die. What’s different, though, is what we believe about what happens after death, and how that belief shapes our lives.

Some of us affirm cartoonish depictions of St. Peter’s gate, or joining choirs of angels who sing eternal hymns of adoration. Others worry about a fiery hell. Many insist that death brings eternal rest or nothingness, while Eastern traditions attest to the soul’s embodiment again and again through reincarnation.

But, even for the staunchest believer of anything, experiencing another person’s death, or approaching our own, can shake deep theological and philosophical convictions.

The Death Chaplain

When I was 25 and a seminary graduate, I accepted a year-long residency position in Clinical Pastoral Education (hospital chaplaincy) at a university medical center. I chose to serve the Medicine Intensive Care Unit (MICU), the pastoral care unit assignment with the most deaths earning the nickname, “The Death Chaplain.” The mortality rate was not due to lack of medical expertise; rather, dying is the nature of the ICU. Despite heroic efforts, it’s the end of the line for many.

Nearly every shift I worked, someone died. I estimate that I must have witnessed, attended to, and cared for the families of some 200 dying patients.

That year, I held space for the universal questions and stages we wrestle with in the of face death. I can’t say that I walked away with more wisdom or clarity. If anything, the complexity of both life and death became heightened, and what I had believed to be true about it all evaporated into a fog of unknown.

The Geometry of Death: Cycle or Line?

Four years after I completed my year-long palliative care service, I married a devout Hindu who abides by orthodox theological doctrines. Fred believes that humans are souls who take birth life after life, putting on a new set of clothes, sometimes human, sometime animal.[1] This system is governed by karma, an intricate cycle of action and reaction across lifetimes that eventually ends with liberation with God. By contrast, I was taught that the human story is strictly linear: we were created, fell into original sin, were then subject to mortality, God provided grace, Jesus saved us from sin, and, if we accept, we spend eternity in Heaven with the Triune God.

But, in all the moments I have witnessed humans transitioning from life into death, I’m not certain which path, cyclical or linear, is right or wrong. None of my patients sent a memo back to let us know. And that may just be the point.

If we don’t really know, should we be more open to considering ideas of the afterlife that contradict our own? Could the Christian benefit from studying reincarnation? Might a Hindu glean something from a linear perspective of life and death? When we question our basic assumptions about the theology of death, grief, and the afterlife, does it make us more or less prepared for the end we all must face?

Grief Close to Home

The first year Fred and I were married, both of our fathers died of heart attacks in their homes. We were already struggling with how to establish our Christian-Hindu household: what to eat, where to worship, whose holidays we would celebrate. Death was the last thing we needed or wanted to approach. And yet, our fathers’ passing thrust us into considering what happens when two faith worlds collide in contemplation of the afterlife.

We coped with their deaths from very different spiritual viewpoints: I believed my father was in heaven, with God, far away from me (and never to return). Fred knew his father was a reincarnated soul, now existing somewhere here among us, perhaps even as his first granddaughter—our niece—was born on what would have been his 57th birthday. Fred was peaceful about his father’s cyclical journey because he felt close, while I mourned the line between the heaven and earth, and yearned for my own father’s return.

Because we had such different views on what had actually happened to them, it made it nearly impossible for Fred to understand my desperate grief and loneliness, and I resented his stoic acceptance. In our household, one question came into sharp focus: How do two ordained clergy from two very different religious traditions navigate two interfaith theologies of the afterlife?

And, how we reconcile these differing ideas amongst our family, friends, and faith community members?

Joan Didion, whose memoir The Year of Magical Thinking describes the grief she felt after losing her husband to a cardiac arrest, writes that her loss “cut loose any fixed ideas I had about death.” Didion uses the power of narrative to draw the reader into the crisis of the unknown, which, in turn, allows the reader to engage with his or her own questions. Though we experience death and grief throughout our lives, Didion reminds us: “Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be.”

When death draws near, we question, wail, blame, bargain, cope, stuff, and accept. The end-of-life path might shore up our faith, or it might stifle it. Perhaps we land somewhere in the middle: waffling between a stalwart faith and an unsure one.

Maybe it’s less about who is right, and more about reflecting humbly on how our belief makes us live and love right now. How will we relate to God and to one another leading up to the same end that connects us all?

In that case, the “Death Cafés” might be on to something: grace and space to question, process, and deal with the fact that we are all born dying.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

J. Dana Trent is an award-winning author and teacher. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, she is ordained in the Baptist tradition. Her first book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk tells the story of her eHarmony-born interfaith marriage. Dana blogs at jdanatrent.com and tweets @jdanatrent.

[1]Bhagavad Gita, 2:22


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