Death Cafe: Visual Scribing @ Calvary Hospital 2015

In 2015 I was invited to provide live cartoon “scribing” for a 2-hour “Death Café” event at Calvary Hospital in Hobart. The general public were invited to meet and have open conversations about death and dying – not a grief group, but a safe space in which to normalise the usually-taboo subject.

death cafe 4

More than 1000 pop-up Death Cafes have been organised by communities & health organisations around the world since 2004. Swiss sociologist / anthropologist Bernard Crettaz held the first Death Café after recognising the need to break the culture of secrecy around death & dying.

At the Calvary event, participants sat around the room in small groups, and my role was to move around the room, listening in on the various conversations and extrapolating the main themes, which I then tried to distill into images & words on two whiteboards.

This was both a creative and personal challenge. Leading up to the event, it made me think about my own mortality more, and practical aspects of death such as preparing a will, and it prompted some challenging conversations with my two adolescent children and my partner. Naturally we avoid speaking about our death with people we love because it touches on deep feelings of sadness & loss, but open conversations can help us feel more prepared for that loss when it happens, and potentially help us appreciate the time we do have with each other more fully.

death cafe 3

Creatively, while I have decades of experience drawing spontaneously with groups in new situations, I had never tried live “visual scribing” before, and I was nervous about whether I could deliver something meaningful in a brief 2 hours.

In the end, it was a gently powerful experience for everyone, and the conversations ranged from attitudes about suicide, to feeling more alive in the face of death, to the commercialization of death, to the dangers of shielding children from death, and beyond. It was both fascinating and a privilege to be allowed to listen in on people’s stories, and many people found that my drawings helped them reflect more deeply, and even created connections across the room between separate conversations.

The Death Cafe team: Aneeta Oakley, Sarah De Jonge, Cath Schlyder, Belinda Clarke & Santa Claus