Finding Comfort Through Conversation in Austin Salt-Cowell’s “Death Cafe”

Finding Comfort Through Conversation in Austin Salt-Cowell’s “Death Cafe”

Death is a difficult topic of conversation. I personally have moments of panic when I realize the finite nature of our existence. A sudden feeling will come over me when I think I’m not doing enough or that I’m wasting time. The knowledge that someday there will be an end is both considerably terrifying and terrific motivation. It can get my heart pumping and my stomach churning, but it’s also a reminder to take the opportunities I’m given every day, no matter how big or small. This is why it’s a shame we don’t talk about death more. Sharing thoughts with other people creates a connective tissue which can help us deal with a number of topics. It can help us settle disputes or change someone’s opinion, or it can therapize a bothered mind. So why is it we mostly talk about death after it’s happened and not before?

Austin Salt-Cowell’s new short documentary Death Cafe is the sum of conversations on the topic of death from a variety of viewpoints. Death cafes, which exist all around the world, are places where people can meet and talk about anything and everything regarding death. Austin’s documentary shows us one in Christchurch, New Zealand. Austin himself currently helms from Wellington, New Zealand and went to search for a death cafe in the country.

Christchurch is a more than likely spot for one as it has been the destination of a deadly earthquake in 2011 and mosque shootings in March of 2019. As a city faced with disaster, it seems almost necessary for it to have a place like the death cafe. The film introduces us to the founder, Melanie, and then follows three individuals. Meg explains marriage as becoming a whole. When she lost her husband she felt as though a piece was missing. Richard wants to find a way to make funerals more personal. For his own eventual funeral, he’s chosen a Tardis urn for his ashes, something personal to him. And Rosie, who lost her brother, reacts with art. At the time of the shooting she was working a mural and after, she added fifty-one marks representing the lives lost.

Hearing about each one of these people’s experiences with death gives me a sense of ease. Once strangers, we see them now interact with each other and speak freely about one of the most uncomfortable topics. It allows me the opportunity to know what other people are going through and maybe hear a point that resonates with me. Like Richard, I feel I would like to have a headstone that could represent my life instead of being just another grey rock with a birthdate, death date, and what is essentially a high school yearbook quote. Maybe I’d want my funeral to be designed as more of a celebration than a gloomy day of recounting some stories that would hardly sum up who I was. My funeral will have an open bar and a DJ. 

What Austin was able to do in just over seventeen minutes is impressive as the subject matter is tough. The people are so open and down to earth and Austin’s pace in editing keeps it constantly interesting and eye-opening. I personally hope to see more death cafes pop up and become a more well known thing as death is something we should be talking about. Only after talking about it with others or even watching this film do I begin to feel more comfortable. It’s still scary; how could it not be? My other hope is that this film can give you the opportunity to be able to start the conversation with friends, family, or even strangers if it will give you comfort.

Death Cafe is playing right here, right now, for free on rpm-media.org/death-cafe.

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