People often ask me how I came to be interested in the topic of death. Depending on the context, there are a few explanations I may offer up: an excellent course on death and dying that I took during college; my husband’s career as a medical ethicist wherein conversations about death are considered normal dinnertime fodder; I may even tell the story of my days as a hospitalized newborn whose parents were told they should prepare for my imminent demise. Having dodged the grim reaper in my first weeks of life, I always imagined myself as someone who was here by accident, crashing the greatest party ever.
I heard about the Death Café movement via NPR, felt an immediate affinity for the concept, and hoped someone would start one locally. Six months later, feeling rather uninspired, I took a seat at a staff training session. Fighting against my laconic mood, I started chit-chatting with the co-workers at my table, all of whom were strangers to me. I honestly can’t recall how we veered into this territory but the woman to my left informed me she was getting ready to start a Death Café. Cue the proverbial jaw drop! In a city this large, how is it that the person willing to take the initiative to get this started just happens to be my co-worker? The shock was mutual, as I think the prior reactions she had received were of the “raised eyebrow” variety. I immediately offered to help, as it’s not every day fate places a kindred spirit in the chair right beside you.
As we embark on our third year of Death Café Indy, I can affirm that talking about death with strangers and friends has enhanced my worldview. Death Café’s aim is to “increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.” I now make choices as a direct result of saying to myself “What’s the worst thing that could happen? You could be dead tomorrow, so why not try?” Some were small risks (dancing on stage for the first time in over twenty years); others, more significant (leaving the security of my decade-plus job). For this mental paradigm-shift, I thank the indefatigable Monica Doyle, as well as every Death Café attendee who has helped me to close my mouth, open my ears, and learn.
Jennifer Vines is the Project Manager for the “Before I Die” festival, Monica Doyle’s sidekick in Death Café Indy, and a Florida State University philosophy alum.