The origin story of my novel, The Good Death of Kate Montclair
In Panera bakeries, as you may know, there is typically a community bulletin board on the wall going toward the restrooms. That’s where I saw it. The advertisement for the local Death Café.
As I remember it in my novel, the ad was white paper bordered with blood-red skeletons, lined up head-to-toe.
Such an advertisement is simply “dying” to be read. When my protagonist, Kate Montclair, stops to read it, this is what she finds:
The Washington, D.C. Death Symposium invites you to an exploration of the things that really matter. In a compassionate, confidential, and non-judgmental environment we discuss topics that our death-denying culture has sadly made taboo.
What song would you like at your funeral?
Describe what a “peaceful” death means for you.
How do you prepare for death and dying?
Who gets your collection of garden gnomes when you’re gone?
And did we mention tea and cake?
Coming to you now every first Thursday of the month at 7:30 p.m. Cool Beans Coffee, 732 P Street NW (off Dupont Circle). Come for a frank, FUN discussion of death, dying, and what it means to be fully alive. Bring a friend and we’ll see you there!
Meanwhile, check us out on Facebook and Instagram.
In her essay, “How I Became a Novelist,” included in her collection, The Informed Air, Muriel Spark recalls the inspiration for her novel, Memento Mori:
Then I decided to write a book about old people. It happened that a number of old people whom I had known as a child in Edinburgh were dying from one cause or another, and on my visits to Edinburgh I sometimes accompanied my mother to see them in hospital. When I saw them I was impressed by the power and persistence of the human spirit. They were paralyzed or crippled in body, yet were still exerting characteristic influences on those around them and in the world outside. I saw a tragic side to this situation and a comic side as well. I called this novel Memento Mori.
I also saw a tragic side and a comic side to the Death Café.
The Death Café, you should know, is a global phenomenon. You can look it up. People all over the world getting together in coffee shops to talk about death. Always with the pseudo-sacramental refreshment of tea and cake.
The tragic side: the noble need to come to terms with, not “death” in general, but my death, my mortality, without religious support. (I don’t see anything in the promotional materials of the Death Café that precludes religious belief, but in no way does religion feature centrally in the group’s public presentation.)
Our anti-culture would rather not talk about death or deal with the dying. But the human spirit, with the impressive power and persistence that Muriel Spark saw, will not give up so easily. It is made to come to terms with death, to find meaning in it, and that hunger for meaning will, for many, not be ignored.
The comic side: that people will try to satiate that hunger with conversation over tea and cake in a coffee shop. It’s not that conversation about death is a bad thing. Not at all. What is darkly, sadly comical, rather, is the assumption that the conversation is there to help each one us, as individuals, patch together a response to death.
That’s an enormous burden to place on any one individual’s shoulders.
That’s asking a person to concoct an entire metaphysics, a culture, on his or her own.
I am drawn to strange sub-cultures as material for fiction. Our anti-culture tying the natural impulses of the human spirit into knots—for me, that’s irresistible stuff. I think I knew immediately upon seeing the advertisement for the Death Café that I wanted to tell a story in such a sub-culture.
A story that eventually became the story of what happened to the gravely ill Kate Montclair when she ventured up to the mezzanine of Cool Beans Coffee in Washington, D.C. and attended her first meeting of…the Death Symposium.