Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Rating the Menu at Death Cafes

So many of us are so focused on it.

Living life.

Yet increasingly, the subject of death is attracting more and more attention.  Perhaps it's the aging of our Baby Boomers, and the dawning realization among many of them that they're closer to death than to their birth.

So I wasn't exactly surprised to read that Los Angeles has seen its first death cafe open.  Frankly, I was more surprised to learn that several others have already opened around the country.  Indeed, the first one opened in England in September of 2011.

What is a death cafe, you ask?  It's actually a simple concept that British web designer Jon Underwood borrowed from a Swiss sociologist.  A group of people get together over dessert items and beverages and discuss mortality.  Underwood is using the original European model of the cafe as a comfortable, safe meeting place where patrons become participants, and conversation is as important as the cuisine.

Therefore, contrary to a cafe's popular connotation as a restaurant, death cafes are not an actual bricks-and-mortar franchise chain of diners, but a loose association of fairly controlled fellowships dedicated to the subject of death.  About 60 cafes have already been initiated, and the concept is spreading fairly rapidly across England, the United States, and Australia.

They're not therapy groups, per say.  Nor are they grief recovery groups, or self-help groups, or for-profit psychotherapy clinics.  Instead, at a death cafe, attendees discuss the dying process and its implications with a view, ostensibly, towards "living each day like they're dying."  Because they are.  We all are, right?  You're closer to death now than you were when you started reading this essay.

Each meeting of a death cafe is moderated by a counselor of some type  Ironically, the first death cafe ever was moderated by a specialist in early life experiences.

By now, at least for those of us churched folk, you may be asking yourself, "why don't these people just go to church?"  After all, conventional religious institutions have historically been the place where a society turns for discussing mortality.  Throughout the world, cultures both primitive and sophisticated have created a faith-based construct for explaining, interpreting, coping with, ceremonializing, and processing the death experience.  Yet for people attracted to these death cafes, organized religion apparently has become a foreign or useless concept.

For people like me to learn that institutionalized religion - whether it's evangelicalism or shamanism - plays no role in how an increasing number of people view mortality is bizarre.  Their desire to talk about death isn't what's bizarre.  Actually, calmly talking about it within a like-minded group represents a pretty healthy approach to something so inevitable.  But how bizarre that their faith in themselves - and how insufficient that apparently has become to them - has consumed whatever religious traditions we churched folk have simply assumed to exist in our society!

After all, it's not that people who seek comfort from death cafes don't have any religion.  Self-worship is a religion, and it's far more prevalent even amongst churched people than we care to admit.  Humanism, relativism, carnality - they're all systems of faith, replete with a god; except the deity is the self, not some revered personage with an identity all their own.  Still, it's pretty weird that even liberal churches that let you believe pretty much anything you want to believe hold no attraction for these death cafe patrons.

Perhaps this is an indication as to how utterly secular our culture is becoming.  At the very least, we may be witnessing the quiet birth of yet another religion; another way of worshiping the self.  If how one dies serves as a vital testament to who that person was in life, which appears to be a major tenet of the death cafe faith, and there's no other significance to death than it being a demarcation between different levels of awareness, there may be substantively nothing new to death cafes, but they certainly seem appealing to people who like to think they have no religion.

To some evangelicals, death cafes may seem like a harmless trend that could actually help people deal with grief and trepidation in healthy ways.  But if these death cafes are not dealing with our souls, the eternal purposes of God for each of us, and the significance of dying to self and living for Christ, then it's just another heresy that mocks death's ultimate purpose - to celebrate God's sovereignty as He either brings His people home to live with Him, or sends them into never-ending darkness.

Yes, obviously, death can be considered to be an intrinsically personal experience.  And yes, "living each day like you're dying" is a fairly Biblical motto, whether death cafe fans want to admit it or not.  There's also nothing wrong with pre-planning one's funeral, arranging powers of attorney and other end-of-life legal matters, and taking care to live as long and healthy a life as God intends for us.

But death for believers in Christ is our ultimate opportunity to celebrate His victory over it!  Instead of dreading it, shouldn't we embrace the glorious transition it provides us?  I don't know of anybody who looks forward to the process of dying, but who among us believers should actually fear death?

Maybe some of the folks who are attending these death cafes don't actually fear death, either.  Maybe they simply want to learn what options other people think are available in whatever afterlife they hope may exist.  Kind of like a smorgasbord of post-mortality opportunity.

I'm tempted to wish them a cavalier, if cynical, "good luck with that," except luck is about as real as what these people think they can substitute for dying without Christ.

Of course, they'd likely retort that their faith is just as good as mine.

I hope they don't have to wait until death to find out it isn't.


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