I am running and blindly feeling along the inside of my bag: Phone, recorder, notebook. I get to the station and hear the rumble of the train below, I just miss it. As I wait on the yellow lines of the platform I feel especially aware of a sudden springiness in my foot. It is a sensation a friend once explained as evolutionary protection, the realization that you could be so close to jumping propels you back. A reminder of how strange it is to be alive.
I arrive on time to the ‘death cafe,’ which is held in a french bakery in Manhattan. I nod at faces I vaguely recognize from the page on meetup.com.
One at a time we say what brought us here. “I am interested in the concept that we have a ‘death-denying culture’,” I say. “It feels similar to the idea that we have a sexually repressed culture but yet pornographic imagery reigns. There isn’t an honesty about death in our culture but violence is in movies and pop culture…” I say I am a journalist (so was the woman before me… New York Times) and that I’m doing research for an article about the ‘organic death movement’, a phenomenon that includes death doulas and at-home funerals, and shows a shift in cultural thinking. The death cafe, maybe, is part of this shift.
Next, a professor who teaches a course about death introduces himself. “It is one thing to talk about death, it is another to talk about dying, and still another to talk about being dead.” I nod. This might have registered differently a few months ago, when I would have introduced myself as an atheist. Now I’m not sure how I’d explain where I am… some sort of spiritual limbo, a space in between knowing.
THE PROFESSOR, THE THERAPIST, THE ARTIST, THE ACADEMIC, THE JOURNALIST, A SANGHA
“So how does this work?” asks the New York Times journalist, as we are broken up into groups of five, for conversation.
“I think however we want it to,” says the therapist, who has wild gray hair.
I catch the eye of the professor and he clears his throat. “So,” he leans forward in his seat. “I find it fascinating that we don’t know what death is but we respond to it so easily. Modern science has changed the notion of what it is to die… now it is about your brain or your heart being dead.”
The waiter comes and I order a jasmine tea, in a whisper, hot.
“It’s like the paradox that Plato speaks about,” he continues. “How do you find something that you don’t know you are looking for? It is impossible to know what it is to die, I think.”
Atheism made things easier, maybe. There’s a validation in the little evidence for afterlife, a simplicity. When I was hit with the tragic death of my long-term on-again off-again boyfriend it was a comfort. He was gone. That was it.
The therapist begins speaking animatedly, bringing me out of my mental cloudiness: “I went to a sangha once. Do you know what a sangha is?”
“A gaggle of buddhists,” offers the academic who speaks quickly, succinctly.
The therapist nods. “At the sangha they said it’s impossible for there to be nothing after death… because energy can’t be destroyed or created… it can only be transformed.”
A woman with dark chin-length hair approaches. “Hi, I already know the deal,” she says throwing her bag to the floor. She is a visual artist, she says.
Someone recommends a Japanese film where when you die you go to a limbo where you must make a movie out of a memory of your life.
“I am obsessed with what you do when you are dead,” the artist says. “I have been fascinated to learn there are sanitariums filled with kittens and poodles… Seriously!”
The waiter places a silver pot in front of me and tips it over the leaves, watching as the water blossoms green. The thing with the dead boyfriend is that in my dreams he is there so vividly. We meet in the dreamspace both laughing. Of course you aren’t dead, my dream self thinks. Of course. I knew that somehow all along.
The atheist reading is that I am Not Over It. Likely it’s about my not being able to face his funeral. Or the positive is that this is the way he lives on, through me and everyone else who dreams about him.
But as a spiritualist how could I read these visions? Isn’t that a more interesting question?
At the funerals I have been to people hurry a little at the open casket. Afterward they comfort each other, saying ‘they just didn’t look like themselves, did they?’
I remove the infuser from my glass of tea. “What if, culturally, we had more access to the bodies of the dead when they die?” I say. I am thinking of my research. How there are how-to’s online for at home funerals. They cull information from homesteading days when everyone was buried at home, something practitioners argue helps with the grief process.
“In Germany they don’t embalm the body,” the therapist says. “You sit with the corpse for hours or days. It seems to be a helpful tradition.”
I knew a girl who did funeral make-up for someone she knew. I asked her how she got through it and she said it was easy, she took a Xanax. It was kind of nice, she said.
The New York Times journalist looks up from her notes, she is transcribing by hand. “So I kind of feel like either we think nothing when we die happens… or we don’t,” she says. “It is a yes or no kind of thing…”
“Well until the supernatural touches you,” says the artist.
“Well, then it is yes or no to whether there is a supernatural…” the journalist answers.
“Have you heard of a dumb dinner?” I say. The artist shakes her head, she hasn’t.
“It is a pagan tradition where you set a dinner party for the deceased,” I explain. “Over candelight you talk to them, saying all of the things you need to say.”
The visual artist smiles. “Well the dead like to hear their names mentioned, I’ve read.”
Ritual is what we do when we don’t know what to do. This is something Terence McKenna said. Ritual seemed a natural addition to atheism: If you believe in nothing then you can dabble in anything. But something about ritual (lighting sage at the cemetery, watching a letter flower black in a bowl of water) can make you lose all sense of yourself. Can make one find yourself outside of a logical space. (Once the supernatural touches you…)
I sip the jasmine tea, holding its bitter floral in my mouth.
“With the afterlife, if there is no judgement there is no value,” the professor is arguing. “I mean if the afterlife is not good or bad then there is no point at all. It has to carry some value, ethical value, an aesthetic value, a playful place or a dark place…”
Since losing atheism I have come to believe that no one way is right, that the gulfs in what we believe about death/afterlife/God are not ways we are different but similar, yet I still cannot understand this Heaven/Hell thing.
The academic shifts in his seat. “Well there are traditions where afterlife exists but is not valuable,” he begins. “In ancient Greek you went to a gray dark place where you lay around all day.”
“But do you go there because you deserve it?” the New York Times journalist asks.
“Everyone goes there. It is boring and you just sit there all day. In those traditions you are trying to stop the afterlife from occurring.”
Did atheism make me more or less terrified of death?
I ask the group if they have heard of DMT. It’s a psychedelic compound found in trace amounts in plants, animals, humans. When extracted and smoked it becomes a powerful hallucinogen. The guy who introduced me to DMT said everyone he’d turned on reported no longer being afraid of dying. There is also that documentary about DMT which posits that it’s the chemical released at death, and also during some stages of sleep.
“I am a pretty strong atheist,” says the man in academia. “I find it curious as a secular buddhist practitioner how talk of the afterlife distracts us. We exist now and it is certain that you will die, but how is that going to affect how you live now?”
I nod. For me this is part of the DMT experience. Or any spiritual experience. If you are embraced by something larger than yourself how could you not only see a better view of your own life?
“For some it is comforting to think of after-life,” says the therapist.
One of the ‘death doulas’ interviewed for my story talked about a hospice patient who was having a hard time letting go. Through energy work, the doula sensed she was already living a new life in another dimension. Hearing this that helped her pass.
“I know one woman who is going to be made into jewelry when she goes,” says the therapist, eyes darting equally between the group. “She’s going to give the rings to her kids. I mean you can become a coral reef…”
“Or a tree.” I offer.
The professor sits back in his chair. “In some ways it is aspiring to a sense of immortality. Being an organ donor. Being a book. It is to say, ‘my life had meaning,’ maybe it is a way of theorizing this natural instinct… to have a meaningful life.”
“But if you pass through this life and no one remembers you does that strike you as meaningless?” asks the New York Times journalist.
The way I’ve been thinking about it, I say, is on a most basic level the point of life is to continue it. By having kids or recreating life in art, writing.
“For me the ego is coming in big time here,” says the academic.
The artist cuts in. “So you mentioned that you believed that nothing will happen when you die, and then you switched?” she says, looking at me. “What happened?”
I’m not sure. Maybe it was my dream-like states. I felt I saw the void, which at first appeared black but then I realized was webbed with barely perceptible images: animals, people, objects. There were apocalyptic dreams: The one in which a meteor is about to hit the earth and on the last day I make an appointment at a spa, but the spa is just a lake and I lie there looking at the clouds reflected in the water, waiting.
“It’s just like a question mark,” I explain. “I used to believe in nothing… and now it is just open. It is curious. It is… anything.”
She nods. “I mean god plays are always predictable,” she says. “Aren’t they?”