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SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Penny Hall, Dying for Life and Mehrunisha Suleman, research associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies

Living Well, Dying Well takes place on Saturday and discusses our beliefs and attitudes to death. Here Penny Hall from the organisation Dying for Life and Mehrunisha Suleman, research associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, speak about some of the issues the session will address.

 

Question: How did the event come about?

Penny Hall: Mehrunisha and I met earlier this year at a conference she organised on Muslim Perspectives on End of Life Care. I was fascinated to learn about what is important to Muslim people at the end of their life and how this is managed in our healthcare system. I also enjoyed having the time to chat about these issues with people from different communities who I rarely meet in my day-to-day life. Since I’ve been involved in organising events on the theme of death, dying and living in Cambridge over the last few of years, Mehrunisha and I talked after the conference and thought it would be interesting to create an event in which we have the opportunity to explore this subject from the perspective of different belief systems. We’re delighted to have an excellent panel of speakers who will talk from the perspective of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Humanism, Islam and Judaism, though as no set of speakers could possibly cover the full range of people’s beliefs we’ve created an event that will allow plenty of time for audience contribution. Everyone will have the opportunity to invite other participants and speakers to join them in the conversation that they would like to have so even if someone’s belief system isn’t covered by one of the speakers we hope they will come along and bring their perspective to the conversation.

 

Q: What is the Cambridge Death Cafe?

Penny Hall: A Death Cafe is simply a place where people meet to drink tea, eat cake and talk about death. They are open to everyone and offer an open, respectful, confidential and non-hierarchical space for a group directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives, advertising or themes. At a Death Cafe we are there simply to listen to each other without anyone trying to fix anything for anyone or explain anything or analyse what someone is saying or convince anyone of anything. Time and again I’m amazed at the way a group of strangers can come together and talk so openly about these issues often creating a real sense of intimacy and connection.

I’ve stopped being surprised at what people talk about - there can be tears and laughter and the conversations are as varied as the people who come along. Although the topic is death and dying the conversations are ultimately about life and living and at the end of the evening people often say how uplifted they feel.

Death Cafes are not grief support or counselling sessions.

The Death Cafe movement was started in London by Jon Underwood in 2011 with the aim of “increasing awareness of death in order to help people make the most of their finite lives”. Since that first Death Cafe in Jon’s home in Hackney, East London, there have been well over 6,000 Death Cafes happening in 56 countries all around the world.

The community organisation Dying for Life, which is co-organising the Festival of Ideas event with the Centre of Islamic Studies, has sprung from Death Cafe Cambridge with a broader remit of putting on events with speakers and themes while retaining the intention of allowing plenty of opportunity for everyone to participate in the conversation.

You can find out more about the Death Cafe Movement at DeathCafe.com and about Death Cafes in Cambridge at FB/DeathCafeCambridge or by emailing DeathCafeCambridge@gmail.com. You can find out more about Dying for Life at DyingForLife.co.uk/.

 

Q: How can different perceptions of death help people cope with grief - and with their own mortality?

Penny Hall: Death Cafes and the events we organise through Dying for Life are specifically not offering bereavement support or counselling, nevertheless, it does seem that many of us find it supportive to simply have the space to talk about our own thoughts and feelings without anyone trying to fix anything for us. I personally find that hearing about other people’s experiences can be very touching, thought provoking and broadening of my own perspective. There seems to be something about having death and dying as the topic of conversation that breaks through some of the usual social pretences, often creating an authenticity and honesty amongst strangers that can lead to warm and satisfying human connections that can feel very supportive.

 

Q: Do you think we are more open to talking about death now than a few years ago? Are all the blogs, etc, of people with terminal illnesses making it easier to talk about death?

Penny Hall: Although death is still very much taboo in our culture I do think that things are slowly changing. New Death Cafes are springing up around the country, there were over 500 events taking place across the country for Dying Matters Awareness Week in May this year and yes, the blogs help in bringing these issues out into the open. Although these conversations are not for everyone, there are many people who do want the opportunity to talk about these issues as we see from the number of people who come along to Death Cafes and events like this one.

An interesting study from Cambridge researcher Dr Jane Fleming, Death and the Oldest Old: Attitudes and Preferences for End-of-Life Care, finds that “over 95-year-olds are willing to discuss dying and end-of-life care but seldom do.” It’s interesting that even when someone reaches the age of 95 we are mainly still avoiding talking to them about dying. Maybe we’d be surprised by the response we’d get if we dared to begin this conversation with more people.

 

Q: What is it about modern Western life that has made people shy away from death?

Penny Hall: In our culture since dying and death is now mainly managed by professionals most of us no longer personally encounter death and dying as an integral part of life. The days of people dying in their home cared for by their family and their body lying in the front room after death have mainly disappeared in this country. 77% of people in the UK die somewhere other than their home with their body usually being taken away by an undertaker immediately after death (though this is very gradually changing as a new breed of undertaker is increasingly involving families in this process). Huge advances in modern medicine mean that death can increasingly be postponed, maybe leading to a greater reluctance to accept the fact that that we’re all going to die eventually.

Mehrunisha Suleman: We are excited about the Festival of Ideas event as it provides us an opportunity to bring together people from different cultures, traditions and languages, who may not otherwise meet, to talk about something that is integral to all of us. Research being conducted at the Centre of Islamic studies on “Muslim perspectives on End of Life Care”, which involves outreach and community engagement with people of different faiths and none, is showing that conversations about death and dying that are inclusive of the different voices within our community may help to re-invigorate the idea that biomedicine is but one of the many worldviews that can inform our understanding of living and dying well.

 

Q: Is it more difficult to confront death if you don't have a religious belief in an afterlife?

Penny Hall: I really don't have a definitive answer to this question - the response will be different for every person you ask. I’m interested in the question though and hope that this event will offer the opportunity for people to explore this for themselves.