At the organisation I run we clearly think its important to talk about death. After all, that's what we do.
The project is called 'Death Cafes'. We invite strangers to meet in a friendly place and discuss death over tea and cake. We're not trying to lead people anywhere - we think the good stuff is where people are at already. We just create a safe space and, for a couple of hours, death ceases to be a taboo.
We've now held 18 Death Cafes in the UK and over 150 people have attended. These have taken place in a carousel of places from a funky cafe on Chatsworth Road to the Royal Albert Hall to my own dining room. The idea is spreading and last week saw Lizzy Miles lead the first Death Cafe in the US.
So then, Death Cafe. All this talking about death. What for?
I mean, I've got as many reservations as anyone, and I organise the thing. Thinking about death sometimes feels like a perverse and masochistic thing to do. At the best of times its still pretty risky.
So I was exceptionally pleased to come across an article in Time Magazine entitled 'Why thinking about death may prompt you to save the planet'. This is based on some research at the University of Michigan.
Momentary social cues about death, such as reading about a death in the newspaper or walking past a funeral hall, activate the "legacy motive," which contributes to the drive to gain a sense of purpose in life and to make an impact that will live on after death."
"That kind of motive can override narrow, self-interested behavior," study co-author and University of Michigan assistant professor Leigh Tost said.
Right! I remember, that's why Death Cafe exists.
The article makes intriguing reading. Experimental subjects acted as the vice president of an energy company. They were asked to decide how much energy to give to either someone else at the moment, someone else in the future or themselves in the future.
Half the participants were zapped with the death gun. Or rather they were given a 'death prime', in this case a newspaper story in which the pilot of an aeroplane died. The others were given a neutral story about a Russian mathematician (amazing imagination these scientists!).
Lead author and Duke University associate professor Kimberly Wade-Benzoni in conversation with Death Cafe reported the following. "People who had been exposed to the 'death prime' gave just as much to others in the future as to themselves in the future and significantly more to future others as compared to the allocations of participants who had not been reminded of death. Notably, people primed with death gave more to future others as compared to present others - a striking reversal of the pattern of allocations observed in the control conditions and what would be expected based on prior research involving inter temporal decisions."
"We know we're going to die, so we want to create some meaning for our lives," [co-author] Kimberley Wade-Benzoni.
This totally chimes with my experience. When people ask me why I talk about death then one of the things I say is that it helps me to think of a world without me in it.
Bernard Crettaz, who developed Cafes Mortels in Switzerland and France said that when death was 'liberated from the tyranny of silence', people were 'born in authenticity'. This is an eloquent way of saying that death helps people get back to what really matters. And what matters consistently seems to be living a good life in your own way.
Death. Helping to create meaning and purpose since humans first cottoned on to the fact that life isn't forever.