This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Delaney Nolan, whose story, “The Ugly,” appears in issue 17.
The Death Café
I go to the Death Café in April. It’s held in the Johnson County Senior Center, a brick building on Linn.
We go around the room and introduce ourselves. It’s a funny cross-section of Iowa’s death-intrigued: one sprightly lady in a headband who volunteers at the Iowa Parrot Rescue; next to her, a historian who specializes in “grave-related paraphernalia.” An Indian man explains that he’s a Jainist and wants to share some of Jainism’s views; he inadvertently quotes Plath: “Dying is an art,” he says, “and I would like to share that art.” A large bearded man holds a book on meditation and cheerfully cites an interest in Zen death poems.
The purpose of the Death Café, as the name may suggest, is to talk plainly about death.
That day, we begin with the death of pets.
“I found that when I had an animal die, I was more upset about that than the people that died,” says a woman named Carol. The grave historian nods enthusiastically.
The lady with the parrots advocates writing your own obituary, but says she procrastinates, so she hasn’t done it yet. People laugh—there’s a surprising amount of laughter in the Death Café, parallel, I imagine, to the way people make jokes on the set of a scary movie.
Rahul, the Jainist, explains that in his faith, “starving to death” is sometimes recommended. Letting yourself die when you can no longer follow Jainist rituals will keep your karmic load from increasing. “Gradually, you stop taking solids. Then you stop taking liquids. And when one week or two weeks arrive, [you] just pass away and die.”
Somebody adds, “That’s kind of the point of the advanced directives too, to write out that you don’t want somebody putting tubes in you,” and at this there are little noises of agreement all around the room. There’s scorn for meddling doctors, ambulance medics who automatically give CPR, families who cling.
The idea of having control of your own death is a subject we return to again and again, and in a sense that’s the end game of the Death Café. Discussing a problem, like writing about a problem, is a method of control, and as we all talk about death—our own death, others’ deaths, obituaries, breathing tubes—it’s clear that we’re trying to air out cobwebs, let some light into an attic where we’re usually too scared to tread.
The group’s organizer brings up the earlier proposition to write one’s own obituary, and tells us that in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the author suggests thinking about who’d come to your funeral and what you’d want them to say. At several points the Death Café starts to sound like a cork Vision Board wherein we’re all picturing our ideal eulogy. “I find that interesting,” she concludes, “that you don’t write your own story. Your end story.”
“Well, I come at this from a real different angle,” says the parrot rescue volunteer, looking about. I’ve been looking forward to hearing her take—she has a taut, optimistic smile and is younger than most people in the room. “Near-death experiences?”
Parrot is so interested in this subject that she founded a group for those who’d had near-death experiences (NDEs) to come and talk in Iowa City.
“It was the most fascinating thing I think I’d ever done in my life. I’d read a thousand accounts, but when you talk to somebody who has been there…”
“Do they tend to be alike?”
“Oh, yes,” she says excitedly. Meet deceased relatives! Go up to the light! Float above the bed! Many are able to prove what people were doing around “the event.”
I don’t mean to be flippant; only, I’m wary of this kind of mysticism, wherein the concept of death and dying gets abstracted, swathed in a sort of shimmery harmless ballgown. It seems antithetical to the Death Café itself. But I do like Parrot’s pointed and exact approach, her attention to detail. She says she met her first NDE person at her husband’s dental office. A young woman had come in after a terrible car accident. She’d broken her jaw and all of her teeth. Parrot worked up the courage to ask if anything strange had happened during the car wreck, and then watched the girl’s eyes go wide as she said Yes. The girl had watched from above as the jaws of life pulled her, in her white, blood-soaked blouse, out of the wreck.
Often NDE persons don’t want to come back. A woman who was resuscitated during childbirth went the rest of her life feeling like she was looking through a mask. This unsettles me more than anything else we talk about.
Someone asks if she still leads these groups. She doesn’t.
“There just weren’t enough people?”
“Well. I think what made me stop was my husband’s death.” It gets quiet. “I don’t know, I just kind of lost the energy. I lost a lot of stuff.”
She brightens up again when we ask whether people were different after they came back. “Yes, ma’am! They can sit in the car, in the grocery store, and they can sometimes read the thoughts of people that are coming and going.” Others aren’t the same around electrical appliances. They have trouble in their homes; their watch will always break. Refrigerators break. Coffeemakers break.
Shortly after my visit to the Café, I left Iowa City for a while. I drove south, passing small Iowa towns. Pleasant Hill, Winterset, Montezuma, Brooklyn. Story City. Tiffin. What Cheer, a former coal mining town, shrunk now to six-hundred-some people. I wondered whether there were near-death experiencers in every county, every town, each one harboring safe from scorn the story of their trip to the hospital ceiling, their view of a blood-soaked blouse. I think of Plath and Rahul saying dying is an art; I think of Parrott illustrating the broken watches of the returned, tapping it out on her wrist: they go tick-tick-tick forward, then tick-tick-tick back.
Delaney Nolan’s fiction appears in Ecotone, Guernica, Oxford American, on NPR and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in Indiana Review. She is currently an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.