Speaking about death won’t kill you

“Speaking about death won’t kill you just like speaking about sex won’t make you pregnant.”

We are so disconnected from death in our secular Western culture. We don’t do death well.

How do I know this? From experience. From a cultural point of view, I was totally unprepared for my son’s death 2.5 years ago. My family and friends were similarly lost; disoriented. None of us knew what to do or what to say.

To understand just how disconnected from death we are, you only have to look at how connected we are with birth. We want to know everything! Ever seen that TV show “One born every minute?” Everything is on display – and I mean EVERYTHING!!; the emotions, the actual birth and the hands-on processes of what happens to the newborn baby. Imagine the sequel: “One dead every minute” where we see the emotions, the actual death and the hands-on processes of what happens to the body. Hard to imagine isn’t it? We don’t do death well.

Consider this:

  • 9 out of 10 people never tell anyone their end-of-life wishes.
  • 45% of people die without a will.
  • 80% of people express a wish to die at home. 20% get to do so.

How prepared are you to have someone die at home? Do you even know how long you can have a dead body in your home in South Australia? Put your hand up if you thought it was as long as it takes for the body to decompose in a barrel? Nope … incorrect! We don’t do death well.

How can we reconnect with death? Grass roots initiatives are springing up around the world. They reconnect us with death in a positive and life-enhancing manner. This year I facilitated 3 community generated initiatives right here in Conversations Café.

  1. A Death Café
  2. Dying to Know Day and
  3. A Before I Die wall

Death Cafes

At Death Cafes people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. The aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their finite lives. At the one we had here in the Café we had a lovely ah-ha moment. A man shared the story of how his parents would often take him and his siblings to visit their grandparents. Then the visits just stopped. It wasn’t until he was an adult that he realised the visits had stopped because his grandparents had died and no one had told the kids to “protect” them. Protect them from what? It was like everyone else knew something and he didn’t. A woman round the table came to the Death Cafe because her young children had started asking about death and she was looking for ideas on how to deal with these tricky questions. After hearing the man’s story, she said she would definitely be finding ways to include her kids with all family deaths. Great outcome!

Dying to Know Day

Dying to Know Day on the 8th of August each year is dedicated to bringing to life conversations and community actions around death, dying and bereavement. On the 8th August we hosted an action-packed 4 hours for about 30 people. We screened a documentary on what they are doing in Port Kembla for Community Funerals. We shared research on 10 facts you need to know about dying in Australia. We launched our pilot Before I Die wall and we closed with a Death Café. How did we go? The feedback sheets said it all. “Enlightening, informative, comforting.” “I am now considering an eco-burial”. “A must attend event.”

Before I Die wall

A Before I Die wall is a global community art project that invites people to reflect on their lives and share their personal aspirations in a public space. The first wall was in 2011. There are now over 500 walls, in 35 languages, in 70 countries, including 8 in Australia. One of these was the pilot wall we had in Gawler in Conversations Café. For 2 months the Café customers filled in the blanks on the chalkboard wall. What did the people in Gawler have to say?

  • Before I die I want to: meet the Port Power team
  • Before I die I want to: fix all my mistakes
  • Before I die I want to: live

We are now proposing a public Before I Die wall for Gawler. Council has approved the concept in principle. We are currently working with local service groups to make it happen.

Each of these 3 initiatives has the same common purpose. That is, regularly contemplating death is a powerful tool to restore perspective and remind us of the things that make our lives meaningful. The paradox is that thinking about death, learning about death, talking about death actually enlivens you!

So how long can you keep a body at home in South Australia? Or maybe the question is: Why would you even want to? If you would like to know the answers to these questions and come to the next Death Café or Dying to Know Day or follow the progress on the Gawler Before I Die wall just write your contact details on the sheet being passed around. Just remember: Speaking about death won’t kill you.

Note: This was a speech I did at Northern Stars Toastmasters Club on Thursday, 6 November 2014. It was the 5th project: The Abstract Concept,  in the advanced manual: Speaking to Inform.



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