‘If I'm sad, why do I need to pretend like everything's fine?’ Death Cafés are bringing Russians together to break taboos about the end of life. Our correspondent joined in — and began to overcome her own fears.
Over the past several years, a movement advocating for “a more positive relationship to death” has taken off around the world, especially in Great Britain and the United States. This movement’s ideology suggests that people should talk more about their own deaths and those of their loved ones, establishing a more conscious relationship with the inevitable end of every life. The most striking part of this movement is the so-called Death Café, a space where those who wish to can talk about death, burials, and the many complications that come along with them. Such cafés already exist in a number of Russian cities. Meduza correspondent Sasha Sulim attended Death Café meetings in Moscow and Voronezh to find out what purpose they serve for their members and organizers. In the process, she began to see her own relationship with death in a new light.
When I was a child — when I was three or four years old — I looked out the window of my grandma’s apartment and caught a glimpse of the funeral for her neighbor from across the street. A wind ensemble was playing, there were people standing around holding wreaths, and a red coffin was carried out. Grandma said that the coffin would be buried in the ground, and that death is permanent. Before bed that same evening, I asked my dad, “But isn’t it possible to dig yourself out of the ground somehow?” My dad told me it was, probably so that I would fall asleep faster. But even then, I understood.
In over twenty years, I never once talked about my fear of death with anyone. Now, in August 2018, I sit in a spacious room with red-brick walls in the Voronezh House of Human Rights. Usually, this is a workplace for human rights lawyers and advocates, but today, people are gathered here for another purpose: to talk about death during a Death Café meeting. In the middle of the triangular room, there are three tables and fifteen chairs for the participants. On the tables, there’s an assortment of plates piled with grapes, candy, and cake as well as several cups of tea. The people milling around the chairs range from teenage girls with brightly colored hair and gauges in their ears to retirees to a tall blonde woman in heavy makeup and high heels. All of them are a bit shy and hesitant: Some of the plates they have filled with snacks will remain untouched throughout the evening.
I look at the faces of these strangers — and I ask them a question that I wouldn’t even dare to ask those closest to me.
“Maybe we should be happy for the person instead”
A few weeks ago, 43 year-old Voronezh resident Pavel (who declined to give his last name) was watching a movie called The Suicide Club while scrolling through social media on his phone. All of a sudden, an ad for a local meetup group called “Death Café” popped up. The coincidence peaked his interest, and he decided to sign up for the meeting. “I have acquaintances who say that they belong to ‘the order of the guardians of death,’ and at first, I thought that the Death Café would attract weirdos like that,” said Pavel. “But it turned out that the club wasn’t fake, and it wasn’t a joke. The people who come to these meetings, they’re really suffering.”
Pavel went to his first meeting with his wife, Marina. Death is not an unfamiliar topic in their family: in the early 2000s, Pavel served in the Russian special forces in Chechnya. “In war, death is common,” he said. “You can be killed any second. That’s also true here, but the chances are so much higher there.” Five years ago, Pavel retired from the military. Three years ago, he met Marina. They enjoy studying “the mystical aspects of life” together and reading religious and psychological texts. Nonetheless, they had never explicitly discussed death before attending the Death Café.
“Are you afraid of death?” I asked Pavel.
“It’s natural,” he responded. “What is there to be afraid of? People are always trying to avoid discussing death. It’s like if we don’t talk about it, then it doesn’t exist. But come on, of course it exists.”
“But when you were in Chechnya, weren’t you afraid to die?”
“Honestly, I wasn’t. I believe that we live more than one life, that we’re constantly reborn. If someone leaves this world naturally, we should be happy that they’ve finished their path here and that they’re moving on to the next one.”
“Have you talked to Marina about her father’s death?”
“I don’t want to bring it up unless she does. She knows how I feel about all this, and our worldviews coincide on that count.”
For Pavel and Marina, this Death Café meeting is their first. However, there are others in Voronezh who regularly choose to meet up with a group of strangers and talk about death. Twenty-one-year-old student and web designer Migel Rublyovsky, for example, first began attending Death Café events to tell the story of his late pet cat. “I tried to talk about how it’s just as hard to make it through the death of an animal as it is to make it through the death of a human being you love,” says Rublyovsky, whose mesh t-shirt reaches almost down to his knees. “I can’t say that I got a lot of support back then, but at least I got to hear a range of different opinions.”
At the next Death Café meeting, the young man admitted that he doesn’t know how to broach the topic of death with his grandmother. Rublyovsky wants his legal name to be Migel, and in order to remain in his grandmother’s will, which has already been written, he needs to discuss his name change with her. As Rublyovsky explained to me, it will be easier for him to have that conversation with his grandmother after having talked about it with other people. Nonetheless, he still hasn’t used his Death Café experience to take that final step.
Like Pavel and Marina, Rublyovsky has an intimate relationship with death. “One of my friends has cancer, and we often joke about death,” he explains. They also laugh about Rublyovsky’s three suicide attempts at age 13, 15, and 17, which Rublyovsky discusses at the Death Café meeting as well. “The first time, I swallowed some pills, but nothing good came of that — I just ended up in the hospital,” he recounts. Rublyovsky explains that he can discuss his suicide attempts so easily thanks to extensive work with therapists, who have helped him pick apart the details of his story. “The second time, I climbed to the roof of a 16-story building where I had hung out with friends sometimes,” Rublyovsky remembers. “I decided to jump. I was 16th stories up, but I just fell onto a ledge on the 15th floor and hurt my leg. I think it had to be one of the top failed suicide attempts in history. The third time, I saw an attractive semi truck rolling down the road and thought, ‘Why don’t I go introduce myself to her?’ At the last possible second, somebody caught my hoodie and pulled me back.”
Now, Rublyovsky is even more afraid of death than he was before. “I used to want to go skydiving. It was a dream for me, a fixation, but now I’m afraid,” he admits. “What if the parachute doesn’t open or something happens to me?”
Rublyovsky, Pavel, Marina, and the dozen other Voronezh residents who have gathered together to talk about death sit down around the three tables that have been set out for them. Psychologist Irina Zhirkova, one of the Death Café’s organizers, kicks off the conversation by reading a list of rules: No quoting the event’s participants on social media without their permission, no imposing your opinion on others, no selling death-related services. Then, she asks, “Why are you here?” Marina, however, immediately redirects the conversation and asks a different question: What do those present think about death, if they think about it at all?
“I’m just curious about what’s going to happen to us after death,” replies a young man in his early 30s who introduces himself as Vladimir. “I mean, it’s the first and only time in our life that we change our state of being.” The question of his own death doesn’t worry Vladimir too much, nor does he take an interest in it during his day-to-day life. However, he talks more than the others at the Death Café and even recalls having a near-death experience. “I was driving really fast and lost control of the car. In those few seconds, I’d already managed to say my last goodbyes to life,” he says. “It was my ‘cancer’ — it was only momentary, but it really gave me a sense of the value of life. Still, after a few hours, I had already forgotten about it all.”
Kirill, who is about the same age as Vladimir, has a different kind of near-death story: he remembers how his 92-year-old grandmother complained just before her death that she had “lived more than enough” and wanted to pass on as soon as possible. Kirill says that he’s afraid to live long enough for life to lose all meaning for him. Other members of the group offer their support: They would also rather die suddenly than slowly fade away into some terrible illness.
All in all, it’s a typical Death Café conversation. As Irina Zhirkova explains to me, people here often talk about their fears of dying a slow and painful death. Another common leitmotif is cremation, especially since Voronezh doesn’t have its own crematorium. During this meeting, it’s Marina who brings up that topic as well.
“I once had a dream about my late grandmother,” she recounts, “In the dream, she was complaining that she was very cold under the ground. After that, I decided I wanted my body to be burned instead. Besides, I think fire is a kind of purification.”
“But aren’t you afraid that it’ll be too hot?” Ulya asks. She came to the meeting with her sister. Their father died a few years ago, and they wanted to talk about their loss.
Personal stories soon merge into philosophical arguments, and some participants begin to retell the plots of films and books. According to Zhirkova, this is typical in conversations about death, especially among strangers: “Our psyche protects us, so frequently we turn from one topic to another, related, less intimidating subject — it’s absolutely natural.”
At one point, Pavel starts telling Yulia and her sisters that not every culture considers it acceptable for the living to speak about the dead at all. “We’re all taught that death is bad — that when somebody dies, you have to feel sorry for them and cry for them,” the former soldier reasons, “but we don’t even know what happens after death. Maybe we should be happy for the person instead.”
The topic of suicide soon comes up as well. (By this point, Miguel Rublevsky has already left the room: He had gotten angry at another participant who had used the word “hedonism” in a negative sense.) Vladimir calls suicide a weakness. Marina sees it as a loss of meaning: “It’s like being in a video game where you’ve already done all the quests, but you still have to finish the game.”
In the end, I gather up the resolve to speak up too — and I begin to tell my story. A few years ago, my friend’s 14-year-old daughter, whom I’ll call Vika, passed away. I knew Vika fairly well: We had spent time together on several occasions, always as part of a large group, and Vika had always been happy to strike up conversations with the adults. My friends and I went to the funeral, we went to the wake — and never spoke about Vika again. When, a year later, I suggested that we all come together to mark the anniversary of her death, everyone agreed — but Vika’s name still wasn’t mentioned even once.
Retelling all the circumstances of the story aloud, I begin to cry, the only one among the participants at this meeting to do so. I ask the others whether they talk about their loved ones who are gone and whether they share these memories with anyone. I don’t. It’s probably because I’m afraid of something, too.
Yulia and her sister are the first to answer my question. Though a few years have passed since their father died, the two sisters have not yet discussed his death with their mother. “We only talk about it and remember it with friends, not with family,” they say. Another woman remembers a relative who, for many years, united his large family around him. “He died a few years ago. We have gotten together since then, but we haven’t talked about his death even once,” she explains. “I remember a moment when someone wanted to say something about it, but everybody else cut him off immediately. It just seems to be really hard for them.”
“This is extremism, it’s horrible, it’s a nightmare”
Jon Underwood, a British web designer, founded the Death Café movement in 2011. He got the idea of having a friendly conversation about death over tea from Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz. Crettaz, who studied traditions and customs related to death, frequently met with his subjects (mostly elderly people) in a cafe.
Underwood organized the first meeting at his home in northeast London with the help of his mother, the psychotherapist Sue Barsky Reid. They hoped a new awareness of mortality would help people make the most of their lives.
Together, Underwood and Reid decided to make their Death Café into a “social franchise.” They created a special guide so that people around the world could organize their own Death Cafés. Just a year later, Death Cafés had reached the United States. Today, Death Cafés exist in 56 countries, and close to 7,000 meetings have taken place worldwide. In June of 2017, Jon Underwood died of acute promyelocytic leukemia. The condition had not been diagnosed, and he died suddenly. Since then, his mother and sister have run his website and the London Death Café.
The first Death Café in Russia was organized in Moscow in May 2016 by oncologist Katerina Pechurichko. Before then, she had worked at Yasnoe Utro (Bright Morning), a psychological services hotline for cancer patients and their loved ones. She realized that “people have nowhere to turn with the subject of death, no one to talk to about it.” She specifically searched for a “non-therapy format” in part because many people in Russia are biased against psychologists and in part so that those who are going through phases of acute grief would not attend. As Pechurichko explains to me, grief counseling groups are now widespread, including in Russia, whereas people without specific needs — those who are not experiencing acute grief — seem to have nowhere to go.
Pechurichko learned about Death Café from an article in The Guardian. “I liked that it was a space for everyone,” she recalls. “You can come once, sit silently for the whole meeting, never return, and still get something out of it.”
For a long time, Pechurichko thought about organizing a meeting, but she was certain that those around her would think that she was crazy. She wasn’t wrong. When she started to look for a location for her Death Café, she was rejected by almost 20 different venues, from libraries to coworking spaces. According to Pechurichko, the owners were frightened by the word “death,” and everyone said the same thing: “This is extremism, it’s horrible, it’s a nightmare.” Eventually, Pechurichko found a place for the Death Café at the city’s Blagosfera community center, and all of the group’s meetings in the last few months have taken place there.
Over the course of two years, Katerina Pechurichko’s Death Café has attracted a number of regular visitors. At each monthly meeting, between a third and half of the visitors — about seven to 10 people — are regulars. “Some of them have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses, and there are others who just have no one to talk to about these issues,” she says. The ideal number of participants, Pechurichko tells me, is 20 people, according to Underwood and Reid’s guide. That way, she explains, everyone has a chance to talk.
Discussions at the Death Café often focus on the same set of topics. The group often discusses funerals, both those participants have attended and those they know they will. Another important leitmotif is the experience of one’s first encounter with death, which, as a rule, takes place at an early age. “It turns out that a lot of people have never told anybody at all about that experience,” Pachurichko says. “I mean, how do you bring that up in a normal conversation? You wouldn’t just up and say to somebody, ‘Let me tell you about how, when I was six, I saw my neighbor being buried.”
The Moscow oncologist explains that fact by speculating that “this is how people try to spare the feelings of those who have lost their relatives. We try not to remind those people of their losses. But what we don’t remember is that those losses leave a gaping hole, and they feel that hole every day.” According to Pechurichko’s observations, people think about death in their youth and old age more than at any other point in their lives. “The rest of our lives is a period of stagnation between childhood and old age when we try to tune out our neuroses with regards to our own mortality.”
Pechurichko dedicates the last Death Café meeting of every year — there have been two already — to the attendees’ deceased relatives and loved ones. “Personally, it helps me to talk about my mother and father, which is why I came up with this tradition,” she explains. “On that day, everyone brings photographs, somebody might play their loved one’s favorite song, and it becomes this evening of reminiscences.”
“Would you say that death is as difficult and awkward to talk about as sex?” I ask her.
“The problems that come up in conversations on those two topics do seem pretty similar to me,” Pechurichko responds. “A lot of people don’t know how to express support for people who have lost somebody. The standard polite responses like ‘my condolences,’ ‘hang in there,’ and ‘everything’s going to be all right’ only distance us from each other. It is absolutely clear that not everything is going to be all right: The person died. In our culture, there’s no tradition of sharing our feelings and our suffering. It’s hard for us to say ‘I don’t know what to say to you. I’m at a loss myself.’ Language really does fail us in these situations.”
“Has fear of death come up often during your Death Café meetings?”
“We practically never have anyone confess that they’re mortally afraid of death.”
“Why? Isn’t death supposed to be our greatest fear?”
“Because it’s terrifying, and talking about it is terrifying: The sun will keep shining, the flowers will still bloom, but I won’t be here. I’ve only heard that kind of thing from people with terminal illnesses.”
There is one young woman who, for a few months in a row, has signed up for the Death Café and cancelled her registration every time the day before the meeting. Finally, she wrote Pechurichko a message on Facebook. As it turned out, she was afraid to be in a place where people would be talking about death. “Admitting that you’re afraid takes great courage,” Pechurichko believes. “People are afraid for their own mental state, afraid that they will stir up, dredge up something and not know what to do with all of it. That’s why many people prefer to stay silent.”
“Interesting, but not super scary”
The Death Café in Voronezh — the second in Russia — was also opened thanks to Katerina Pechurichko: she held the city’s first meeting at a local festival in May 2018. Irina Zhirkova, a psychologist who leads a support group for Voronezh’s human rights defenders, attended and latched onto the idea.
“In the group, there’s always somebody who comes to talk because they like to talk,” Zhirkova says. “We get a lot of people with a professional stake in the subject matter — psychologists, or, say, military personnel. For the rest it’s just interesting, but there’s nothing super scary about it. People who are scared don’t even accept my invitation to join the group.”
Marina Fedeyeva, a graduate of the Higher School of Economics psychology department, helps Zhirkova with the organizing. She specifically came to Voronezh from Moscow for the sake of the Death Café. Death is Fadeyeva’s professional focus: She has conducted a research project analyzing the diaries of dying people, and she found that the diaries written in Russian drastically differed from those in other languages. “Ours usually sound something like this: ‘I absolutely must overcome this, I can handle this, I’m great, I’m strong,’” the researcher says. “There’s almost no room in these texts for feelings, for contemplation, as if there’s a sense that if we think or write that we’re afraid, we’re feeling poorly and so forth, then we’re going to lose the battle earlier. As if we die only because we wrote the word ‘death.’”
At the same time, Fadeyeva notes that death has lately become a more frequent topic of conversation in Russia. The Death Café groups as well as anthropologist Sergey Mokhov’s journal Archeology of Russian Death both attest to this, but so does the fact that the issue of hospice and palliative care is being raised by the state media and on social media sites. “I mean, that’s also an opportunity to talk about death in the public sphere. And if we’re talking about hospice care, then any coverage on it also serves an educational purpose,” says Fadeyeva. She compares this general trend to Russians’ attitudes toward psychotherapy. Not that long ago, going to a therapist was also generally considered to be abnormal, but attitudes are gradually changing.
“At the end of every meeting, I am convinced again and again that there are common wellsprings in life that can bring together well-groomed ladies in their 30s and teenage girls with gauges in their ears,” Irina Zhirkova says by way of summary. “To see how completely different people talk about things that are extremely frightening for them and still support one another — it’s incredible.”
“Ask a mortician”
In June 2018, The New York Times published an article on the “positive death movement.” It told the story of Shatzi Weisberger, a former nurse who decided to throw a party that she called a “FUN-eral,” playing off the theme of death. A biodegradable coffin, on which those who wished could leave their messages for the hostess, became the highlight of the night, along with a sign with a quote from Steve Jobs: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”
Weisberger, who is now 88 years old, only recently — after her close friend died from cancer — discovered the idea of positive attitudes toward death. “She became terrified, so scared that she couldn’t even talk about it,” Weisberger recalls in the article. From then on, she studied the topic and promoted the idea of a conscious attitude toward death. In her opinion, it is worthwhile for people to try to “experience” their dying.
There are also programs in the academic world dedicated to studying attitudes toward death. DeathLab, a lab that analyzes how contemporary urban dwellers perceive death, is operated by Columbia University in New York. Also based in the U.S. is the Art of Dying Institute. There one can, for instance, learn how to carry out environmentally-friendly burials or receive end of life doula training — with the idea being that one would act as a doula in reverse, not helping people give birth but rather face death with dignity. Meanwhile, a series of YouTube channels have begun offering similar resources to curious viewers online. One channel, “Ask a Mortician,” has more than half a million subscribers. It provides answers to various death-related questions, such as the rationale behind inviting strippers to a funeral or what happens to a body during cremation.
Experts quoted by The New York Times — bloggers, Death Café organizers, funeral directors, and instructors from the end of life doula training program — attribute the growing popularity of the positive death movement to the fact that death itself is ever more so all around us. On the one hand, mass shootings of unarmed people occur almost every month in America, and every day might be one’s last. On the other hand, the country’s population is becoming older. In the next 20 years, the number of annual deaths in the U.S. may rise by a third.
“What a bad time for him to die”
Two days after the Voronezh Death Café, another conversation about death begins at the Nekrasov Library in Moscow. It was organized not by Katerina Pechurichko, but by the Polytechnic Museum’s librarian, Galina Nagoryanskaya. More than 50 people have arrived for the event (Nagoryanskaya decided not to enforce any limits on the number of people who signed up). A box in the shape of a coffin stands on the table among the plates of cookies.
Nagoryanskaya begins the discussion. When her parents died, she was unable to process it for a long time — not until, one day, people around her began to make comments like “How long are you going to grieve? It’s normal, after all, for parents to die. It’s a good thing you didn’t have a spouse or a child die.”
“I suddenly understood then that it was just as uncomfortable for them to be around me as it was for me to hear their comments,” Nagoryanskaya explains. “On top of that, I didn’t complain to anyone, didn’t tug at anyone’s sleeves. My behavior simply changed drastically, and that confused everyone.” Galina calls this experience of hers a “public opinion vaccine” — it showed her that at some point, she had to get herself together and move on.
The other participants at the event seem to be in no rush to share their own stories of grief. Instead, one man suggests discussing “concepts” related to the subject of death, and he begins name dropping famous philosophers. Then, just it had in Voronezh, the discussion turns to the question of why the elderly often speak of their own desire to die. Is it because there’s already no point in living, or do they just want to draw attention to themselves?
Dasha, a student, confesses that no one among her friends and family has died yet. “I’m wondering, I guess, what’s it like?”
“Can you tell us what the experience is like?” someone Dasha’s age asks a man who works with people who are diagnosed with terminal illnesses. “Nobody in my life has died yet either.”
“I’m tempted to be facetious and say that you definitely won’t be able to avoid this experience,” the man replies. “But I’ll still answer: It is baggage that everyone manages however they are able.”
At this point, other attendees join the conversation. Irina, an accountant, recalls how the father of one of her colleagues died when they were preparing their annual report. “She said at the time, ‘What a bad time for him to die.’ Her agitation didn’t have to do with her father’s death, it had to do with the report.”
“A few years ago, someone very close to me died,” another woman continues the discussion. “To this day, I haven’t recovered from it, and everyone around me is perplexed — how long can you grieve over him? After all, you’re so young. But if I’m sad, why do I need to pretend like everything’s fine?”
The last participant to tell her story is a young woman named Anna. She has recently lost her parents. “A few years ago, my father had a stroke, and he wasn’t able to recover from it. He died. Then, a few days later, my mom had to go to the ER,” Anna recalls. “I had to keep going back and forth between the hospital and the cemetery, all while calming down all the relatives who called me in hysterics to ask for all the details of what had happened.” To avoid repeating that scenario over and over and reliving all the horror of her parents’ suffering anew, Anna wrote a letter about the situation and sent it to all her friends and relatives.
As in every Death Café meeting, many of those present didn’t say a word. That included me. I didn’t talk about how every time I imagine that I don’t exist, I get a panic attack that feels like following into a dark, bottomless hole. I didn’t talk about how that feeling comes back to me several times a day. I didn’t talk about how, aside from my friend’s daughter, there have been other, even more important losses in my life that I still can’t talk about. I didn’t talk about how now, after attending several Death Café meetings, I feel able for the first time in my life to think about death, talk about it with other people, and even write a thing or two.
I didn’t talk about any of that, but maybe I’ll come back and talk about it next time.
Translation by Sydney Lazarus, Nikki Lohr, Nicci Mowszowski, Rachel Myers, and Isabelle Sinclair