Research: Phone interview with Death Café organiser Katarina Zwilgmeyer

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I send Katarina Zwilgmeyer a long text asking for an interview. After looking for people with experience organising Death Café events, I had found her number on the a norwegian Death Café website.

"Off course! No problem" she replies not even one minute after I sendt the first text.

Death Cafés are community events where people can come and discuss death. It's not a grief group, but an open and curious way to talk about death. The events are organised by volunteers and advertised on the website Deathcafe.com. The group behind the website write that their mission is 'to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives'.

Katarina has planned her death since she was 14, I learn in the sensational headline of a norwegian new article from 2013. It's about the first Death Café organised in Norway. In the article she says "Thinking about death helps me focus on what's important in life, since I know it will end one day."

She repeats this notion when I ask her why we should talk about death.

"Talking about death has value for everyone. Both personally and for society."

When she organises talks about death it's to break the taboo that is strong in Scandinavian countries.

"We try to normalise it, to make it easier to talk about."

"But talking about death all the time is not the point. Death is a valuable part of life, just as many other things."

Katarina works as an undertaker, but organising Death Cafés is her hobby. She's very clear when I ask her if she works with grief as an undertaker.

"The undertaker business is not therapy. We are off course in close contact with it, but we are there to handle the practical stuff."

"There are others who are qualified to talk to about grief." She gives me a list of people she knows are very good at this, in her professional experience.

There are a number of grief groups in the Oslo area. Her Death Café co-organiser works with his as a day job. Katarina tells me I should also contact Magne Raundalen who is a famous children psychologist with a lifetime of experience with difficult grief. Other than that there is a group called The Fransiscus Help who also organise grief groups. And the Norwegian Society for Unexpected Child Death who have expanded to dealing with all types of grieving.

Katarina has worked as a mortician for 13 years. The biggest change she has noticed is how specific people have become with funeral planning. She attributes this in part to an overall trend of costumers being more picky over the years.

"You won't believe the things people think of. What type of wood the coffin is made of. A horse carriage that brings in the coffin. Custom horse head decorations. All sort of extravagance. It's like a custom event."

"People want to show how much they loved the deceased. And how much they can afford to spend on a funeral. That they can organise this fancy event with lots of people."

But its almost never the deceased who wants these things. Its the people left behind.

"People don't want to think about their death. So they dont think of the planning or the will. This is one of the reasons we organise discussions about death. We hope people will talk about their wishes with their loved ones before it's too late."

There are a number of reasons you should think about the practicalities of your death. For one, a detailed plan for who will inherit what will make sure no arguing between family. But its also about relieving your loved ones of all the choices around a funeral. The wishes of the deceased creates a security and certainty for the ones left behind.

"I can see that it's very important to them. Almost holy. When they come carrying a sheet of paper with the squeaky handwriting of their dying father last wishes, it's almost like a holy relic. And that makes sense. It gives them security and comfort."

"I don't believe the funeral is for me anymore. I used to do that. But now I believe it's for the people who attend the funeral. In my funeral I won't care if they play Ave Maria or Rock n' Roll. I won't hear it."

After 35 minutes I begin to run out of focused questions. I suspect that Katarina could talk about this topic for hours. I ask if she has heard of some of the new startups that provide services that allow you to send messages and gifts to your loved ones after you die. She ask "What's a startup?". I'm not sure if she's joking, defiant or just hasn't heard the term before. I try my hardest to explain it without sounding condesending. "Well, to me that word means new companies who quickly jump on to a trend. But who knows?"

"Ah. So they allow me to send a birthday gift to my family after I'm dead? Kind of like 'instead of your inheritance you will receive a birthday gift for the rest of your life'".

Katarina wonders aloud with a pauses in-between each thought.

"Hmm. Spooky and kind of exciting. I'm not sure. Definitely very creepy."

"I once received a letter from a deceased person I knew. That is, she sent the letter and I received after she had died. That was strange. Strange."

"I'm not sure I like sending gifts after you're dead. I would never want that to happen to me. To receive a gift, or a message from someone dead I knew. How can a son accept death when he continues to receive gifts and messages from his father. It's important to accept death."

I tell Katarina that I wonder if the service is more valuable for the people who sign up and plan what their legacy. How they will be remembered.

"That's the problem! People don't accept that they are going to die. What's up with being terrified of your own death? I'm terrified of never dying."

Before we hang up Katarina mentions someone I should talk to. Two days from now she's organising a Death Café together with a doctor at a nursing home for elderly. But when the doctor had announced her plans to the families of the elderly, there had been an outcry. She even received death threats.

"But she went ahead with the event anyway! I think these old people won't mind at all talking about death. It will definitely be interesting to hear their perspective. I think it's the children of the elderly who won't accept that their parents are about to die."

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