Causes

Working up an appetite for life at 'Death Cafe'

Participants at the Death Cafe, which drew 20 people, including Ms Carol Lim (right foreground). They discussed questions such as "what is death like?" and shared takeaways and personal experiences. Participants sharing their thoughts on death and li
Participants sharing their thoughts on death and life at the Death Cafe event, held last month at 99bistro at the Lifelong Learning Institute. Among them were Mrs Aarti Sharma (right corner of table in foreground), who talked about the death of her grandmother.PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Participants at the Death Cafe, which drew 20 people, including Ms Carol Lim (right foreground). They discussed questions such as "what is death like?" and shared takeaways and personal experiences. Participants sharing their thoughts on death and li
Participants at the Death Cafe, which drew 20 people, including Ms Carol Lim (right foreground). They discussed questions such as "what is death like?" and shared takeaways and personal experiences. PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

In fast-paced Singapore, there are those in need - and those who go out of their way to meet those needs. This is the latest in a series on noteworthy causes that The Straits Times is spotlighting.

It was the last Tuesday night of October and groups of people were huddled in a cluster of four tables at a cafe.

At one table, a widowed mother of two, who lost her 30-year-old husband in a car accident four years earlier, shared with others her thoughts on how unprepared most people are for death.

"There is no frank, open discussion on death. It is completely novel to people and it still comes as a shock," said Ms Sherlin Giri, 40, an adjunct lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic.

At the same table, Ms Carol Lim, 25, chimed in: "I work in a will writing company and each time I approach the human resource staff of companies about our services, they will say, 'choy, touch wood', even though I am not dealing directly with death."

Following a brief lull in the conversation, Mrs Aarti Sharma, 38, spoke up: "But death to me can be a wonderful experience."

The human resource professional revealed how her grandmother had died in her arms. It was an unlikely event as she was residing in Finland then and her grandmother was in India. But Mrs Sharma happened to be there for a work trip.

"I was her favourite grandchild and I realised that if someone truly loves you, they will try to have closure with you," she said.

FOCUSING ON PRIORITIES

Knowing that we have a finite amount of time here gives us the urgency to look at other important aspects of our lives such as time management, purpose and priorities.

MR RAHUL SHAH, founder of social initiative Up Your Game, on why he organised the Death Cafe meeting.

This cafe event on Oct 31 drew 20 people, half of them in their 20s and 30s.

Ms Samantha Lau, 22, turned up at the "Death Cafe" with laptop in hand, straight from classes at the university. She was there to engage strangers on the topic of death.

The Death Cafe, held at 99bistro at the Lifelong Learning Institute in Eunos, was organised by Mr Rahul Shah, founder of a social initiative called Up Your Game that aims to nurture a personal development community. Up Your Game was formed two years ago and it mainly organises personal sharings, forums and conferences.

It was the first Death Cafe meeting for them. But they are not alone.

There are at least two other Death Cafe groups in Singapore who meet every few months for similar sessions. Such meetings are inspired by the Death Cafe movement globally, where people meet in cafes to discuss, over tea and cake, life, the finality of life and why people fear it.

The founder of the movement is Mr Jon Underwood, who died earlier this year at the age of 44 from a brain haemorrhage due to leukaemia. From the basement of his house in an artsy borough in London's East End, Mr Underwood perpetuated a movement that has spread to more than 50 countries and over 5,000 meetings, from Singapore to Zimbabwe.

"I wanted to have a Death Cafe meeting because death is a taboo subject, yet it is the very concept of death that gives relevance to life," said Mr Shah, 33, an entrepreneur.

"Knowing that we have a finite amount of time here gives us the urgency to look at other important aspects of our lives such as time management, purpose and priorities," he added.

In recent years, other groups have also been inspired to link strangers up to talk about death.

Financial consultant Raj Mohamad, 53, has been organising Death Cafe meetings thrice a year since 2014. So far, about 100 people have attended these sessions at various cafes.

"Some people think it's like Alcoholics Anonymous and we do get people who come who once had suicidal thoughts," said Mr Raj. They are referred to professionals for help if necessary.

"We don't offer them solutions or counselling but simply a platform to talk about such issues openly and honestly. The different perspectives they get may help them approach death differently and celebrate life," he said.

Likewise, Ms Charu Ramesh, 53, started organising Death Cafe gatherings at her apartment in Thomson last year.

"We chose my home instead of a cafe as it is a closed environment that may be more conducive for personal sharing," she said.

"Many of those who come have experiences with illnesses or death and they find it liberating to be able to talk about it. It's hard for them to talk to even their family about it as their loved ones may find broaching it too inauspicious or traumatic," said Ms Ramesh, a homeopath.

The format at 99bistro involved members rotating after 20 minutes, discussing questions such as: What is death like? Would you prefer sudden death to being aware that you are dying? How do our views of death impact the way we live?

After 1-1/2 hours, people shared their takeaways or continued to ask questions.

One woman asked others if it was normal not to be upset or cry at a loved one's funeral.

Another young woman said her family has a tradition of putting aside money every month for a "funeral fund".

"My mother used to make those savings for me but now that I have hit 30, I have to take over those payments," said Ms Nadia Madeline, 30, a consultant, with a laugh.

"We are never too young to think about death. The conversation does not have to be depressing; talking about it can give you newfound appreciation for life."

• For more information, go to http://deathcafe.com/

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2017, with the headline 'Working up an appetite for life at 'Death Cafe''. Print Edition | Subscribe