Tea, Cakes, and Death

Yesterday, Cat, Shannon, and I drove to Frederick, MD to participate in a Death Café. As the name suggests, people can meet up at these gatherings, drink tea or coffee, eat sweet snacks like cake and cookies… and talk about death.

The Death Café was first developed by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid, based on Bernard Crettaz’s ideas. Conversations are strictly about death and dying, forcing attendees to confront what American society normally considers “taboo” topics. This was my second Death Café, and I’m so glad I was able to go. I always see a variety of people at these events, from the very old and wise, to the young and inexperienced, like myself. Many attend because they have lost loved ones and want to discuss those moments, that grief. Others are hospice workers with great insight into the lives of the dying. Still others are home funeral and green burial advocates, like the young man I met yesterday whose father is buried in his family’s home cemetery–in his backyard. What I love most about these gatherings, though, is that every single person I’ve spoken with agrees: the culture of death in America is a culture of denial and fear, and it’s wrong.

For those who don’t know, I am a huge supporter of death acceptance and a death-positive attitude. It’s very important to me to have a home funeral and to be buried without coffin or vault, directly into the earth. And I truly wish death wasn’t seen as a morbid interest or a taboo topic in my society, so that we can better prepare for death–for our own, and for our relatives’. I’ve been procrastinating on my own death planning, but at least I know what resources are out there to help me get started.

After the Death Café, my friends and I had lunch at Il Porto, then drove down the street to Mt. Olivet Cemetery. It is a large, historical cemetery that houses Francis Scott Key’s grave. As part of the monument erected over Keys’ grave, sculptor Alexander Doyle fashioned the image of Columbia, the goddess of America, flanked by boys representing War and Music. Now, in my tradition, it’s customary to leave pennies for a cemetery’s gatekeeper–usually the grave closest to the cemetery’s entrance. Considering Keys’ grave is the first and largest one at Mt. Olivet, my friends and I agreed to leave our pennies at the statues’ feet.

I approached first with three pennies in hand, one for the goddess, and one each for War and Music. The statue’s austere gaze bore down upon me with such intensity that I became filled with reverence and awe. I imagined that this must be how ancient Egyptians or Greeks or Romans felt, standing before the towering representations of their gods in Their temples. And then it occurred to me: I was in the exact same position. Of course, very few people recognize Columbia as a deity to worship or honor. And of course, the graveyard is no hallowed temple despite the sacredness of its space. And yet there I was, standing beneath Her image, feeling Her presence.

I bowed.

Mt. Olivet itself was very beautiful and peaceful. It was well-tended enough, and recent flowers on some gravestones told me that the living still visited the dead. My friends and I were the only visitors that day, yet we still spoke softly out of reverence, and we strolled at a leisurely pace. I hadn’t been to a cemetery since October, so I was quite happy to be visiting one again and keeping the company of the dead. We even found a row at the back of known and unknown Confederate soldiers whose families could not afford to ship their remains back South. Frederick City had been kind enough to bury the dead on this land instead.

If anything, visiting Mt. Olivet made me yearn to return to Loudon Park, which I frequented before the cold weather set in. I used to bring my lunch and stroll among the headstones there. The last time I went, I found an abandoned grave, one whose headstone had almost been lost beneath dirt and grass. I’ll try to find that one again, though it’ll prove difficult. And I want to visit the plot of land at Loudon Park where Dan’s family is buried, to pay my respects. Since the weather is finally starting to warm up, I’m sure I’ll be able to go more frequently.

After our cemetery walk, my friends and I drove to Frederick’s pagan store, The Owl Nest. It was not too different from the Crystal Fox, though the shelves were organized more neatly and they had a huge herb collection. A few merchandise tempted me, such a set of Elder Futhark runes carved into bloodstone. I’d already purchased a smaller set carved into black river stone from Etsy, however, so I decided not to part with my money at the store. Instead, I later spent it on materials for the upcoming spring equinox party and ritual I’m hosting at my house next month.

Overall, I had a fun time in Frederick! It was my first time visiting the town, which I found clean and quaint, if somewhat far away. The Death Café was as enjoyable as I expected it to be, though unfortunately, the skull-and-crossbones cookies were a bit bland. The visit to Mt. Olivet was a lot more intense than I thought it would be, but in a good way, of course! I don’t know if I’ll head up in this direction again soon, but I’m glad I did yesterday, and I’m especially glad that Cat and Shannon went with me.

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