Death Café. The name itself evokes a visceral response in each of us. From the moment we are born, we have a sense of what this unknowable event means, and as we grow, the culture and circumstances that surround us influence our perception of death. It is generally a grim view.
I spoke with Jay Davani, the facilitator of Death Café in Providence. She offers a very different perspective on what the name, and her own work as a pioneer in Death Activism, is all about.
Davani was born in Iran, a country where the subject of mortality is shrouded in tradition and secrecy. “Death has always been a big part of my life but it’s always been in the background, hidden. I’m Persian and in our culture it is forbidden to speak about death. It’s a bad omen. Even when someone’s dying you don’t say that they’re dying out loud.” Her sole experience at a cemetery as a child left her confused and unsettled. “It was really upsetting to see my father so devastated when I didn’t understand what was going on.”
It was through art that Davani finally reached her own understanding of death.
“When I went to college in Atlanta, I picked up my first camera and started teaching myself how to use it.” After she moved to New England to continue her work in graphic design at Brown University, she chose a digital photography class at RISD as her elective. “One of the assignments with that class was to shoot something that we were really uncomfortable with. The first thing that came right to me were cemeteries.” It was a pivotal decision that would launch her journey as an artist and Death Influencer.
She shot the project at a cemetery in Portsmouth, NH. As she moved amid the rows of quiet stones, the visual nature of photography itself had a magical effect; she saw her surroundings in a new and very different way. “I started to feel more comfortable looking at all the details, the shadows and the light… I felt at home. I remember the moment.” Ever since then she has been walking through and within cemeteries, taking pictures.
New opportunities came as her work progressed. North Burial Ground, Providence’s oldest municipal cemetery, noticed Davani’s photographs and asked her to do an artist talk. This virtual event held during COVID drew the largest crowd that the organization had ever had. Among the attendees was a Death Doula from Canada who invited Davani to apply to an exclusive two-week program at the Mortem Death School, based in Ontario. This global virtual residency admits only six artists for each session; Davani was one of those chosen.
“During the program we learned from different death workers in the industry. A Death Doula who worked with us talked about gatherings called Death Cafés. They even have an artspecific Death Café with artists for whom death is a central theme.” After attending those events online for a year, she was inspired to bring the idea to the US.
Davani wrote a proposal for the Providence City Parks Department and immediately convinced them: “Trust me, this is necessary and people are going to want to come.” The initial contract was for three events, but after the first two maxed out less than an hour after the post went up, the program was extended. Davani is currently in the process of negotiating a contract with the Community Libraries of Providence to host future sessions.
So what exactly goes on at a Death Café?
“I am creating and cultivating space for people to face, talk about, and deal with their own mortality and that of their loved ones,” Davani told me. She is also planning a seminar on endof-life paperwork, with an attorney present to help people get started and to understand how to have these conversations.
“My goal through all of this work is that people suffer less at the end of life.” Davani has had the privilege of witnessing the dying process several times. “The thing that upset me and hurt my heart is that the people who suffer the most are the ones who have the greatest fear of death. Fear does not actually allow the body to die, so they end up feeling the torture of death as a painful and long experience. It’s a survival instinct that is meant to protect us, but in death, it actually ends up hurting us more.”
What does Davani hope to accomplish?
“My ultimate goal is that people are more alive, that they feel more aware and more mindful, more in tune with the finite nature of life.” She has seen this at every Death Café. The energy in the room goes from fear, to curiosity, to an explosion. “After each event we’ve held a postmortem afterparty because an hour and a half is just not enough time.” •
For updates on Death Café visit thejaydavani.com/mortem or follow @thejaydavani on Instagram.