By Sue Barsky Reid
Sue has been a regular facilitator of Death Cafes in London since we started offering them in 2011. This year she is planning to offer them in Chester and Cardiff. Here she offers her reflections on the Southbank Death Festival.
I was very excited to find out that Death Café was going to be available to a wider group for the first time in such an amazing venue as the South Bank Centre. Death was going public!
The four previous Death Café had been exciting and stimulating. Each group of people who participated brought something unique so that each café was so different. The ages of the groups ranged from early twenties to mid sixties. They attended Death Cafe for a wide variety of reasons but all shared an interest in death. Most had heard of us from an on-line source. Some café members had experienced the death of close relatives, or had a profound fear of death. A few were just curious and some were in the 'death industry'.
So here we were with no one prebooked, not sure whether we would fill one of our three tables, feeling excited and apprehensive. Lots of people were at the exhibition. Would they know more about death than me? And would they like the cakes which I had lovingly baked?
We prepared the space which was not ideal as it was open to the sounds of the centre, which did not help to make it feel private and safe to talk. In Hackney we were used to a cosy room with a log fire and could set an atmosphere with specially chosen music. We helped people to feel nurtured by giving them a wide choice of hot and cold beverages and here it was only feasible to offer one drink.
We went down to the main centre to offer leaflets and invitations to the exhibition goers and got some interesting responses which ranged from surprise and interest to disgust. The promise of free cake elicited a more enthusiastic response.
The time passed and suddenly we were fifteen minutes before our starting time and people started to arrive. Mine was the first table to be filled. There was a mixture of ages the majority of whom were women. As usual I explained about the origins of Death Café and the ground rules. After asking what brought them there that afternoon I sat and waited whilst people composed their thoughts.
I am always very present in the moment during groups in which I participate but afterwards I am left with only a vague impression of what happened. My recollection is of lots of talk about ritual around death and burial. The approaches of different cultures were discussed as well as leaving ones body to medical science. Some participants were keen to speak, others said a little and one said nothing at all. Sometimes people work in a group with an internal rather than external dialogue. I was happy that the cake was enjoyed. After the hour was over I felt stimulated excited and privileged to have participated.
The second day the exhibition was not so well attended so the three groups were
slightly smaller, although I believe that on both days people were turned away.
There were eight people in my group on the second day with an even number of men and women. Several group participants were in the death industry and when I asked them about their motivations for this work the reason they gave turned out to be very moving. The discussion on the second day touched me and other group members on a deep and emotional level.
I believe that Death Café is doing something so worthwhile in giving space and time to a discussion of death I am proud to be a part of it.