An article on the front page of the New York Times last week discussed a new type of social gathering that the reporter found to be surprising and, evidently, newsworthy: a “death cafe”—a group of people meeting in a café or diner to discuss death from practical and philosophical perspectives. Meeting to discuss any single, given topic is not unusual—think about groups of new parents to discuss child raising, PTO groups, or bible study groups. The surprise and novelty of the meetings come from the topic– death, which our society apparently does not consider discussion-worthy or the topic for passing a convivial hour or two.
As a practicing Stoic, I find a focus on death normal and advisable. I similarly find it droll that people are intrigued by the question, “What would you do if this were your last day?” Surely you should live every day as if it were. Roman Stoicism, as I have extrapolated and adapted it from Seneca, puts death at the heart of how to live a tranquil life and teaches the value of keeping death in mind and living every day as if it could be your last.
In the Stoic view, death establishes perspective as no other notion can. Seneca describes in an essay how life is not short at all if one lives life fully and points out that the way to do that is to keep death in mind. If you live like you will live forever, you are far more likely to fritter away your time and be left feeling that life was too short or unfulfilled. Secondly, the reality of death fosters deeper, closer, and more patient and loving ties with our loved ones: it is axiomatic if you think about it in this way—if you knew that your child would not live out the month, how would you act towards him? That would pertain to many relationships and no doubt make you more appreciative of your relationships and a kinder person. However, one might ask: is it really possible to go around imagining that each time you see a loved one it could be the last? A thought does not take much effort, is free, and quiet– so, yes, the thought is not too burdensome. But, is it a foolish thought, such as any number of notions that we could entertain throughout the day? It is far from foolish when you consider parents who have sent their children to school only to have them gunned down and movie-goers who have died in the rapid rattle of the semi-automatic; add to that natural disasters, illness, and the risks that we accept from trains, planes and automobiles. A basic Stoic idea: what can happen to someone can happen to you. Last argument in favor of entertaining thoughts of death: even if you play the odds and think how unlikely it is so that you and your loved ones will die soon, if you were nonetheless to focus on death, you stand a great chance of valuing life and acting like a better person.
In addition to defeating procrastination and making us cherish loved ones, death, when contemplated, gives us an appreciation for our own paltry existence; truly our life is terminable, and then there will be nothing (an end or a transition, but certainly not the same thing). Or–if things are really bad, then death is a consolation.
One author put it generally that “Death makes life beautiful.” Indeed, although it is really incomprehensible, try to imagine immortality. Then, one remembers the poem by Swinburne: “We thank with brief thanksgiving / whatever gods may be/ that no life lives forever / that dead men rise up never / and that even the weariest river / runs somewhere safe to sea.”
Even according death such a central role in my life, I would not necessarily get excited about death cafes because the value of the discussion depends on what is being said about death. There could be discussion about it it that would not be beneficial, but simply depressing because something as potent as death, something that can give such a perspective on life, has to be powerful and it is– powerfully awful. I can’t like death, which takes away people I love; I can only make use of it. Not ever having attended a “death café” I can’t know what others say about death, but I suspect there is a lot of trying to reconcile death with life, i.e., trying to feel okay about dying or having others die. As a Stoic, I will simply be pragmatic about it.