Namalee Bolle: Death Cafe At Mortimer House

The Notebook | 28th August 2019

The award-winning writer and transpersonal psychoherapist brings an open forum to talk about bereavement to Mortimer House

There is one journey that we all share in life, and that is the journey to the grave–whether your beliefs lie in the realm of the atheist, the agnostic or the true believer, there is no greater truth than that espoused by the late Jim Morrison, namely that no-one here gets out alive. Despite this fundamental truth of existence, Western society has a tendency to paper over the cracks of death and bereavement, and to talk about passing openly is almost taboo, and generally considered the ultimate downer in polite circles. The global movement Death Café seeks to overturn such deeply entrenched societal habits and encourage people to talk openly about bereavement and the tortuous emotional landscape of grief. This month, Death Café comes to Mortimer House courtesy of award-winning Guardian writer, artist and fashion director Namalee Bolle, who is perhaps most infamous for co-founding the iconoclastic SUPERSUPER! – a style magazine that re-wrote the fashion rules with it’s day-glo aesthetic and surreal humour. With the sudden death of her father–a Dutch Auschwitz survivor–Namalee intuitively felt inclined to shift her focus from the external world of fashion to the internal–self–training as a transpersonal psychotherapist so that she could heal, explore her own intergenerational trauma, and, ultimately, help others. On September 16th, Namalee will be hosting Death Café with Rebecca Pearson at Mortimer House for London Fashion Week. Here, she talk to us about coming to terms with personal tragedy and tells us why the personal is always poltical.

Tell us about the origins of Death Café…
Death Café is a not-for-profit social franchise created in 2010 by the visionary Jon Underwood who cites Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz’s Café Mortel as his inspiration. The first ever Death Cafe was held in Jon’s Hackney home in 2011 with his mother Sue Barsky Reid, a psychotherapist, and soon after it’s conception they set up guidelines so that anyone who wanted to could host their own Death Café. All you need is a facilitator, a safe space where people can talk, and some tea and cake (part of the philosophy is that people should be provided with sustenance, so they can eat and drink whilst discussing death). Although Underwood died in 2014 his legacy lives on, and over 9,000 death cafes have been held worldwide. He was described in an obituary in The Guardian as a “deeply compassionate radical” and when I heard about him, I thought he sounded like the true heart-centered altruistic superhero we needed to inspire humanity into action. I very much adhere to the ‘personal is the political’ mantra because I feel like searching within and trying to make the changes in ourselves is what is really going to create change in the whole world right now. Death Café feels like a way that humanity can start to take our power back, helping us to do deeper work on ourselves and access our internal power. I think that’s what Jon Underwood’s message means to me–he started a movement that is revolutionising the way we are dealing (or rather not dealing) with death, and has left us a blueprint to help us learn to evolve emotionally and philosophically to work towards better death, and, in turn, discover more understanding of life.

What inspired you to bring Death Café to Mortimer House?
I first visited Mortimer House as a guest of my friend and Death Café co-facilitator Rebecca Pearson. I picked up Maslow’s Notebook and recognised the American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s name because he is a fundamental pioneer of transpersonal psychology, and I’d just written an essay about him! I was so delighted when I saw that Mortimer House is based on the Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ and was actually created with his theories about human motivation and happiness as central themes. So, of course, it just felt like the natural environment to host a Death Café. Transpersonal psychology recognises that there are potentially higher functioning states which in an unconscious state we cannot access, but through expanded consciousness we can experience evermore deeper connections with other humans, and cultivate more compassion for each other. Both me and Rebecca have backgrounds in fashion and entertainment, and these are industries with a history of thoroughly suppressing conversations about anything to do with real life. Sadly, the industry has also had it fair share of suicides and tragic deaths–the most prominent being the phenomenally talented Alexander McQueen. We thought it would be a good way to honour our lost fashion folk by holding a Death Cafe during London Fashion Week.

Why do you think talking about bereavement is so taboo is Western society?
In the Victorian era when life expectancy was half of what it is today, and times were physically a lot more brutal, death was openly discussed–if you are experiencing it more often, it becomes something you have to learn to deal with through the sheer amount it happens and becomes normalised. If you think about life today, people are living way longer and everything is so hyper-focused around youth and nobody wants to talk about death. The message is that you become obsolete the closer you are to death, so you should idealise youth and play down any 'deathly' looking traits (grey hair, wrinkles etcetera) in a bid to appear forever young and desirable. It’s as though we have now been convinced that moving towards death (even though the life cycle is heading towards this from the moment we are born) is actually a fate worse than death! Ultimately, capitalism benefits from our fear of death, by encouraging us to spend all our hard earned cash to eradicate any signs that we are getting nearer to it. We need to break free from the mental slavery and start truly talking about a more positive death and how to achieve it, and that takes courageous conversation with one another.

What is your own personal conception of passing on?
I don’t have any fixed beliefs about what happens when we die and I don’t feel like I need an answer because I’m never going to find out so I don’t see the point in deciding on one way, because there are so many possibilities and anything or nothing could be true. I try to spend my time trying to live as fully as I can, especially because my fathers side all perished in The Holocaust, and it has really made me want to live thoroughly on behalf of my grandparents who were murdered in their 20s. So I am trying to maximise my life potential and go for all opportunities that I feel strongly pulled towards in my heart, and when death eventually happens, at least I will know that I lived to my maximum capacity. Although I’m very fond of my material identity I’m not overly attached to it, and I don’t feel the need to leave a material legacy. I’m not religious and I grew up with no religion at all even though my dad's heritage is Dutch Jewish and my Sri Lankan mum's is Christian and Buddhist. I just always got the impression my parents were cynical of religion as it was never discussed. I think I do believe we are ultimately made of energy, though. We all have this life force energy naturally pulsing through our bodies–it’s just that most of us are not acknowledging that we have that much power to heal ourselves as human beings.

How would you personally describe the process of grief?
There is no one way in which we experience grief from my own experience and observation. What is important to acknowledge is that when a loved one dies it will certainly have some kind of effect and other people need to be mindful of that and have compassion. The obvious examples are breaking down in tears and becoming depressed after a bereavement, but someone else could be terrified of crying and have been taught not to do it, so they might appear ‘fine’ and then later develop some other symptoms where the grief has manifested in their body. It’s different for everyone. My dad died seven years ago this summer and I know that even though I have really rationalised his death, the feelings are still very complex and some are still not even available to me because my childhood was complicated and traumatic. I recently went on holiday and whilst sat on a mountain with a spectacularly beautiful view of volcanoes and the sea I cried about my dad and cathartically released some grief and tears, and it was very healing and poignant. My sister recently reminded me recently of how I had been cracking terribly inappropriate jokes at my dad’s funeral because that’s how I dealt with immense pain for a long time, in a way that was safe to me, and that’s okay too. Any response to death is okay–there is no right or wrong.

Death Cafe is at Mortimer House on September 16th
Interview by John-Paul Pryor
Photography by Terry Whitaker

For more info on Death Cafe visit deathcafe.com