In America, is there a taboo about talking — or even thinking — about death? If so, how should people deal with that taboo?
Recently the first “Death Cafe” to be held in the United States occurred here in Columbus. (I didn’t attend, but I heard it mentioned on a local NPR station and thought the idea sounded interesting.) “Death Cafe” began in the United Kingdom; it seeks to deal with the death taboo by encouraging people to meet and talk about death over tea and cake. The underlying concept, as the linked website explains, is that thinking and talking about death will cause people to focus on leaving a legacy and ensuring that their lives have meaning — and that focus may lead them to behave in a more selfless way before they hit the point of ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
I’m not sure that there is a taboo, in America, in talking about death. To be sure, it doesn’t come up often in friendly conversation, but I don’t sense that is due to custom or societal prohibition. Instead, I think it’s simply because there are lots of other interesting things to discuss. When tragedy strikes and a close friend or loved one dies, I don’t feel constrained about discussing death, and I don’t think my friends and family members do, either. Some people may not want to confront their mortality, but many of us recognize the inevitability of our demise and at least want to make sure that we have things in place for our survivors. Why else would people buy life insurance or pre-pay for a cemetery plot?
That said, if there are people who feel abashed in talking about death, and Death Cafe helps them overcome their reluctance, the idea has served a salutary purpose. I’m all in favor of anything that might make people behave better to their fellow man in the here and now.