I’m sitting by my Tuscan swimming pool as I write. As I’m touching on the subject of death and the Catholic church, I’m conscious of a large chasm opening in front of me. With that in mind, unless its clear to the contrary, all thoughts and comments are mine and mine alone.
While on holiday I was lucky enough to meet Elisabetta Lucchi and Hilary Wilson, from what is believed to be Italy’s one and only Death Cafe in Verona.
We sat in a shaded side street off the Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, sipping cold beer and strong coffee and talking of life and death. Bologna being a good half way point between Florence and Verona.
‘Verona has the 3 C’s’, they told me ‘Conservative politics, conservative outlook and Catholicism’. Numbers at Verona’s Death Cafe were small, but the conversation was good. Having regard to average attendance world wide (8-10 being a good average attendance) to get 4-5 people turning up in such an environment struck me as remarkable.
Elisabetta has a Masters degree in Death Studies and End of Life Care. Hilary decided some twenty years ago to swap the steel grey skies of London for the clear blue one’s of Italy. Together they are trying to convince Italians it’s okay to talk about death. It’s a brave and uphill struggle, but one they relish.
‘So why is it so difficult to get Italians to come to a Death Cafe?’ I asked. The common response was; ‘Death Cafe? You want to talk about death? What is there to talk about? You shouldn’t talk about it. It’s the priest’s job to talk about death, not yours, or anybody else’s. It’s sacrilegious, to make death an everyday topic. Death belongs to the church. Death should be mystical.
You give them cake! and tea! and make death comfortable to talk about, this is outrageous!’
While my reportage may not be verbatim, it gives a flavour of what seems to be a prevailing attitude amongst many Italians.
In fairness, this has to be set against an education system which is largely church controlled and where the prospect of heaven and hell are still treated as a reality and not just a distant rumour.
There is a strong belief in an afterlife I was told. This was another reason for not having to worry about death.
The Church is omnipresent, it controls most of the Hospice care and casts a cold eye over would-be volunteers of differing ideologies.
‘What are Italian funeral’s like?’ I asked.
‘They can be very distressing, its done as a duty. If you want to be cremated you have to say so in writing before you die. If you don’t, all your children have to go along to the local town hall and give there written consent. If one wont then you can’t be cremated, whatever your wishes may have been.’
So does the Death Cafe seek to muscle in on the churches territory or should it be seen as complementary?
I’m not a religious person – I don’t follow any religion although I do believe in God. My knowledge of organised religion, particularly of the Catholic persuasion is limited.
Living as I do in a small village, I can appreciate the part my local Church of England plays in bringing the community together. It’s pastoral work can be invaluable. I haven’t seen the Catholic church in action, but have no reason to believe its any different.
There obviously are some differences, when it comes to women priests, abortion, contraception etc.
The Death Cafe is not there to say if there is a heaven or hell. It creates a space in which you can talk about life and death in a supportive and non-judgmental environment. It follows no religious creed and has no agenda other than to increase our understanding of life and death.
Is this incompatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church? A lot I suspect hinges on interpretation and context. But should it be incompatible?
We all need to express our feelings. I would like to think the Catholic Church and the Death Cafe can work in tandem, each bringing comfort and support to those facing death. There may be an afterlife. No one knows for sure, although some have faith there is and that should be respected. But if there is, there’s no forwarding address.
The bereaved are left behind. For those facing death there can be a sense of uncertainty. Hopefully all can agree that death is natural, we will all face it one day.
To be able to acknowledge and talk about our own mortality should not really, I would hope, offend anyone.
To read more posts from Nigel George, visit his blog, Borley Green.