Death and coffee at Scuppernong
My father died in fear and anger. His last coherent words to me included the Latin phrase “timor mortis conturbat me,” with an F-bomb between “mortis” and “conturbat.”
Meaning “the fear of death disturbs me,” that’s from the 15th Century Scots poet William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makers,” which Dad loved reciting in a bad brogue at dinner instead of Grace. “It damn well does disturb me,” he said when he was a swinging bachelor younger than I am now, who medicated mortality with alcohol and women younger than I was then.
I thought of him while talking to Susan Sassman and Deborah Parker, co-facilitators of Death Café Greensboro, an informal discussion group that meets at 6 p.m. on the third Monday of each month at Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books. These charming and enthusiastic ladies with very different Southern accents are passionate advocates for the international movement founded, at least in English, by the London anthropologist Jon Underwood, who died last June at the age of 44.
“It’s in the sharing that people learn to overcome their fears because they hear other people’s stories of how things have gone,” Parker said to me at coffee around a sunlit table. “Some people may come and talk about how their aunt recently died, and they hated how the funeral was handled,” she said. “Which can lead to others asking how they’d like their own taken care of,” Parker explained that there are new options for this. “The old ‘let’s embalm the body and see it in a coffin’ is on its way out.”
I asked Sassman how the movement’s been affected by the death of Jon Underwood, who didn’t create the first Death Café (that would have been Café Mortel, created by Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz in Neuchâtel in 2004), but who was called the movement’s founder in his New York Times obituary.
“I know that there are over 5,000 death cafes operating in over 52 countries in the world,” she said. “So I think in seven years since Underwood organized his first one in London, that’s good growth.” She acknowledged that many resist the subject, which she calls “the ultimate taboo in this death-phobic culture.” Like Parker, she wants to help combat that phobia. “We really need places where people can come together very freely, have a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, and share their fears and their dreams.” She said such meetings help attendees not only get past their fears of their own deaths but those of others. “People working in hospice say their own lives are enriched by being with the dying.”
Death Café is not Scuppernong’s only mortality-minded monthly meeting. While Sassman and Parker’s informal discussion group gathers at 6 p.m. on the third Monday of every month, they are allied with and regularly attend Café Mortal, conducted by Lia Miller on the first Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public. Café Mortal is a program of Creative Aging Network-NC with sponsorship from Lambeth-Troxler Community Care and is more literally agenda-driven. Meaning Miller’s Café Mortal meetings often follow a printed agenda and an announced theme, whereas Death Café is more what Sassman called “just sitting around and talking.”
Sassman got into the movement through the late Stimp Hawkins, who up until his death last year was a fixture of both Death Café and Café Mortal (Steve Mitchell covered his farewell in our June 16, 2016, issue).
“He was so charismatic, and I’d been thinking about the death movement for decades,” said Sassman, adding she’d been hesitant to talk about it due to others’ discomfort with the subject. “Stimp was a man who was all about talking about it all the time. So we started meeting for coffee, and I got pulled into the group and met Deborah.”
“I’ve been involved with home health care for the dying for many years,” said Parker, whose brother died at home in 1989. “We kept his body there, and people came to see him. He was not embalmed, and then he was cremated.” She said her brother’s ability to talk to people about his own dying eliminated their fear. “It took me quite a while to realize I could work with Hospice and volunteer because I always thought I could do it for a family member but not a stranger, but he told me the morning before he died ‘you’re going to do this for other people one day’.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.