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What is a death café?

 

The words death and café conjure such different images, don’t they? The idea of placing them alongside each other evokes confusion or curiosity, but rarely is the response neutral.

 

Grief, pain, torment, shock, loss, heartbreak, endings, finality.

Cappuccino, cake, tea, scones, taste sensation, pleasure, companionship, joviality.

 

How on earth do you link them together? And perhaps, more importantly, WHY would you put them as companions in written or spoken word?

 

When I tell people I facilitate a Death Café, the response is invariably one of horror or of intrigue. Generally, those who find it distasteful don’t want to engage in any further discussion. Those of a curious nature learn a heck of a lot in a short space of time.

There are approximately 8, 472 Death Cafés around the world in 65 countries. Some are offered regularly, and others occasionally. What they all have in common is a desire to raise awareness and help remove taboos around death and dying through friendly discussion. There is no set agenda.

My passion for setting up a monthly Death Café in Penrith was initially prompted because I wanted to bring choice and change to my local community. Few people consider death until it slaps them in the face (and if you’ve experienced grief, you know full well that ‘slap’ is an understatement). When suddenly faced with having to arrange a funeral, the chief mourner has anywhere between 80 and 300 decisions to make. That’s a hell of a lot of computing for the neo-cortex to deal with at a time when the body needs to be expressing raw grief.

 

Having seen behind the scenes of the funeral industry, as a funeral celebrant, I wanted people to start having conversations about death. In short, I was determined to disrupt the cultural script (in my neck of the woods, anyway) that death is a dirty word.

 

January 11th 2017 is a date that will stay in my mind for many reasons. Once I had decided to set up a Death Café, I chose my first date: January 11th. I would host meetings on the second Wednesday of each month for as long as there was interest. As per usual in my life, the Universe likes to amplify things a bit. I had no idea in the world (how could I have?), that on Christmas Day just previous, my best friend of eighteen years would hang herself. My whole being turned inside out as I grappled with the trauma and shock. As Fate would have it, her funeral date was January 11th just an hour or so after my first Death Café. I was to be the celebrant. Needless to say I was staring death in the face without any full-force protection that day!

 

Through conversations around cake and coffee, tea and scones, and amidst the gorgeous setting of Greenwheat Florist and Fika, a beautiful café and flower shop on Brunswick Road, Penrith (and thanks to the kindness and generosity of owners Laura and Lee for creating space for us there) we have started writing a new story. It’s one of choice, change, consciousness, creativity and care. Some of our guests have been there since that first session back in January 2017. Their thoughts on death, dying and indeed, living, have had quite a metamorphosis in that time.

 

No subject around death or dying is taboo. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve explored, we’ve asked questions, we’ve shared books. Opinions are sometimes diametrically opposed, and that’s okay too. After all, it is a discussion group. We’ve covered topics ranging from eco-burials, ashes into jewellery, life after death, the ethics of the funeral-director industry, coffins and shrouds, cultural death practices around the world, pet deaths, grief, mourning, caring for a body at home, the politics of death, burial v. cremation, how to choose a funeral director, what makes a meaningful life.

 

Who comes to a Death Café? Anyone at all. We’ve had mourners, celebrants and a funeral director, hospice care workers, those who are simply curious, and friends who’ve been dragged along and rather enjoyed it. I can’t speak for other Death Cafés around the world, but I know that I look forward to our friendly little group in Penrith. Sometimes it’s been incredibly busy, with sixteen or so people gathered in a little café, and other times it’s just two or three of us. For my part, I’m there regardless ready and willing to have a conversation about death, dying, love, living, and more. Most importantly, to show others that death is not a dirty word.

 

About Me:

Hello, my name is Veronika Robinson, an independent funeral celebrant in rural Cumbria.

Determining the nature and feel of a ceremony isn’t as simple as: religious or not religious. Most people have their own hybrid philosophy of life, death, love and living, and as your celebrant I seamlessly weave your beliefs into a ceremony that is enriching, healing and affirming of the relationship you shared with your beloved. I am able to do this because I listen clearly and carefully. At all times, my job is to craft a ceremony which belongs to you.

I’ve been an independent celebrant since 1995, and have officiated all manner of ceremonies internationally. My intention is to create, write and officiate deeply meaningful, personalised and beautiful ceremonies for every person I am honoured to serve.

Being a funeral celebrant, for me, is a vocation which is founded upon high-level care, compassion, empathy, responsibility and awareness.

Ceremonies, when crafted with skill and love, have the ability to be deeply healing.

Penrith’s Woodland Burial Site

At the top end of Penrith’s cemetery, up on the hill overlooking town, there is a quiet oasis: a little haven away from the busyness of town. It’s the Woodland Burial Site.

 

www.veronikarobinson.com/celebrant

Woodland Burial Site, Penrith, Cumbria

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A peaceful haven: Woodland Burial Site

 

It’s fair to say that most people don’t think about how they will honour their loved ones or themselves after death in terms of funeral choices and disposal of the body.

 

www.veronikarobinson.com/celebrant

Penrith Cemetery

 

Increasingly, however, as people become more aware of the huge impact the funeral industry has on the planet, some are taking active steps towards honouring Mother Earth by choosing a low-impact burial. What does this mean?

 

www.veronikarobinson.com/celebrant

Penrith’s woodland burial site

 

It is about burying a body that hasn’t been filled with formaldehyde (which is used to preserve the body so a funeral can be delayed for a week or longer). Some people recognise that an eco burial also means thinking about the coffin. In some instances, families will choose not to use a coffin, though there a many eco ones on the market, and use, instead, something like a shroud. The only legal requirement is that the body not be seen. It is not a legal requirement to use a coffin.

 

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wildflowers on the woodland burial site

 

A woodland burial site doesn’t use headstones, but instead is a natural and holistic way of honouring death by allowing nature to grow unimpeded. Personally, I find it beautiful, simple and inspiring.

 

 

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A beautiful place

 

Oftentimes, people who have chosen the option of an eco burial will also practise home care: this is where the loved ones take care of the body, by keeping it cool with dry ice, and brushing the hair, cleaning the body, and keeping a vigil until the ceremony. Most people are unaware that using a funeral home is an option, not a necessity.

 

www.veronikarobinson.com/celebrant

Secluded and peaceful: Penrith’s Woodland Burial Site

 

 

We’re blessed in the Eden Valley to have such a wonderful resource as this woodland burial site, and I hope in time that it becomes the norm to bury our loved ones in this way (or on private land) as people move away from environmentally unfriendly cremations, headstones, and cemeteries that require constant upkeep through mowing and toxic weed killers.

 

Veronika Robinson is a funeral celebrant who is available to officiate ceremonies throughout Cumbria. Her work involves creating, writing and officiating ceremonies based on the wishes of her clients, and founded on their beliefs, whether they’re religious, humanist, spiritual or other. She is happy to work directly with families or via a funeral director. She is passionate about eco-burials, and opening up the conversation around death and dying in a conscious way. She is a supporter of the Natural Death Centre. https://www.veronikarobinson.com/celebrant/funerals-memorials.shtml

www.veronikarobinson.com/celebrant

Penrith’s woodland burial site

 

Authentic Grief

The stiff, British upper lip, and that need to be ‘dignified’ during a funeral, may, at last, slowly be giving way to authentic grief. Unexpressed tears become acidic in the organs, and are of no benefit to anyone. Funerals, when done with a personal touch, offer a way to bring family and friends together to share in mourning that is honest and uninhibited.

 

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Template, cookie-cutter style funerals are, bit by bit, becoming a thing of the past as people start to realise that they can create a ceremony which honours their loved one and their beliefs in a way that is true to them. Most funerals last for about 20-30 minutes. It’s no time at all to sum up a person’s life, let alone celebrate it, and yet, in many cases due to the choice of venue, this is what we must do.

Bringing personal, heart-felt ritual to a ceremony is vital if we intend to support the healing side of grief.

A funeral/memorial is a major part of acknowledging that a loved one has died. Gathering with others, we face our grief. A funeral somehow makes the death ‘more real’.

 

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That moment, always so painful, when the curtain closes or the coffin is lowered, confirms what we have been experiencing. Our loved one is gone.

Authentic grief is when mind, body and soul align to understand that our life has changed, and our loved one is no longer here (at least in the sense we understand it, physically).

When we are participants and witnesses in a personalised funeral, we are given space to focus on the loss and start the process of living with the change.

Grieving is a time in which we have to adjust to the change of status, in terms of the relationship we once had with the deceased, to living with memories. One of the beautiful things that can come out of a funeral is the sharing of memories. We each have stories to tell, and when we share these with others, it helps to build a fuller picture of the deceased and how they lived on this earth.

 

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At my father’s funeral, I heard many stories about him that I hold close in my heart. It’s always special to have other people’s insights into a loved one.

 

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As an astrologer, I am interested in Saturn’s recent ingress into the zodiac sign of Sagittarius, for this is the part of us which seeks meaning. This is where we ask the big questions: Why? What is the meaning of this? Why did this happen? What happens after death? Perhaps over the next couple of years, during this transit, more and more of us will be seeking the meaning of life more than we ever have.

I do believe the ‘why’ questions become an important stepping stone for the bereaved.

Having said goodbyes to several people in my life recently, it only serves to reinforce that old calling card of mortality. We are all dying. Some of us sooner than others. Having three friends with major health issues has only amplified this message for me, and the need to enjoy every single day.

Death, dying, saying goodbye. These are as important in life as birth, puberty, graduation, weddings, and so on. If anything, they remind us to hold life as sacred. Being able to grieve authentically, at a funeral and elsewhere, is vital to moving onwards.

When someone we love dies, there can be an inner voice that wants to yell at the world ‘stop! Don’t you know (name) has just died?’ A funeral is one of the few times in our grieving journey when the world, or a small part of it, does stop for a short time…long enough for us to say good bye. Our attention becomes focussed on this dedicated grieving ritual.

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When my father was killed in a car accident almost four years ago, I flew the long-haul flight to Australia. I was looking forward, in amongst the pain, to seeing my mother who I’d not seen for years. Although my parents had been divorced for a long time, I knew she’d be there. After all, she had eight grieving children. The only thing was: she didn’t come to the funeral. Her phone went off the hook. It was only after the funeral that she made contact again. My mother hates funerals. She’s not alone there, of course, but she lost a few siblings in childhood in war-time Germany and spent much of her childhood crying. Grief hurts. There’s no denying that. And, to be honest, even the less vain amongst us don’t want to be seen with red puffy eyes and mucusy noses!

A funeral is a way of not only saying farewell, but of welcoming in those in your community so they can love, support and nourish you. Of course, we can never take away another’s grief. That’s impossible. We can, however, say how sorry we are for the loss. We can bake a cake or make a pot of soup. We can bring flowers. We can offer to do housework or errands. There’s no end to the support we can offer. And perhaps, in losing our loved one, we have moments of gaining more love from elsewhere ~ if we allow ourselves to do so. Our broken, wounded heart needs tending, and it is too easy to close ourselves off to the love that is all around us. No one can ever replace our loved one, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find succour in other types of love and affection.

At a funeral I officiated recently, I overheard one of the mourners say to someone, who she was surprised to see there: “What are you doing here?” (The funeral was quite some distance from where the guest lived). Her reply was simple: “I’m here to support you.”

And that is why we go to funerals. To support each other. To symbolically or literally hold another’s hand and say “I feel your pain.”

 

 

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There is still such a fear and taboo around funerals. The tide is changing, though, and if you ever find yourself at a funeral where it has been personalised and officiated with reverence, you might just come to see how deeply healing and transformative such a ceremony can be.

http://veronikarobinson.com/celebrant/funerals-memorials.shtml

 

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