Food, Friends, and Non-Stop Talk... Death Cafes Are Alive and Well

Death is one of the facts of life people are uncomfortable talking about. But there is a growing movement taking hold in the United States – and around the world – encouraging conversation about this once taboo topic often referred to as “the elephant in the room.”

 

“It makes sense that the concept is taking off in America,” blogged Sally Abrahms for AARP. “These independent-minded, I’m-not-going-to-take-it-lying-down boomers are exploring the last frontier. They’re trying to control what they can.”

 

If anyone thinks a Death Café might be a dark scene of somber, morbid conversation among sickly and elderly patients on their way out, try out this opener for a recent meeting in Atlanta.

 

Sarah: “I have recently decided to give my body to Emory which means I will be embalmed and cremated, neither of which I ever wanted. But, by then, I’m hoping I don’t care.”

 

Co-host Bob Duvall, with a mirthful smile: “Studies show you won’t!”

 

After everyone settled down from that light-hearted exchange, the meeting commenced: about 20 people broken into smaller groups of four or five per table, left to take off on their own topics. The conversations covered a wide range:

 

  • Recent Ted Talks about death and dying
  • Best memorial services
  • What to do with ashes?
  • Is there a life after death?
  • How to inform people of  a recent loss without creating an awkward situation
  • Who will come to my funeral?
  • The pain relatives feel following a violent death
  • Near death experiences
  • Leaving advance directives

 

But where did the idea of a Death Café come from anyway?

 

Death Cafés are a “social franchise” that originated with a Swiss sociologist who set up a "cafemortel" in the tradition of salon-like meetings that are held in Europe to discuss philosophy, science and other topics. Jon Underwood, a British Web designer and self-described “death entrepreneur” introduced the concept to the United Kingdom, serving tea and cake in his basement in 2011. The objective of Death Café (www.deathcafe.com), as he set it out, is “To increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

 

Lizzie Miles, 42, a social worker in Columbus, Ohio introduced the first Death Café in the U.S. a year ago and already the concept has taken hold in large cities and small towns coast to coast: Maine to California, Michigan to Florida, and Georgia to Oregon, among them, with many more preparing to launch.

 

The Death Cafés share common principles and objectives initially laid out by Underwood:

  • Events are free to the attendees.
  • Events are also free from ideology, without an agenda. As Atlanta co-host Mark LaRocca-Pitts likes to point out each month: “The only agenda is to have no agenda.”
  • Events are respectful and nurturing, regardless of gender, religion/faith, ethnicity or disability. They are also confidential.
  • The nurturing includes free refreshments, often supplied or underwritten by grants or donations.

 

At a recent Death Café event in Atlanta – which meets monthly at the historic (1850) and beautiful Oakland Cemetery – the Publix cake served actually featured the movement’s logo much to the delight (and delicious enjoyment) of the attendees.

 

The media have caught on, too, with stories already appearing in USA Today, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Huffington PostMobile (Alabama) News-Press, Calgary HeraldColumbus Dispatch and Arizona Daily Star, just to name a few.

 

The stories, reports and facebook pages of the various Death Cafés share a lot of similarities.

 

  • The meetings are casual and include people of all ages; most of them are baby boomers or beyond but it’s not so unusual to have 30- and 40- somethings.
  • Some attendees are with partners or spouses but most seem to come on their own to explore this most personal topic.
  • Contrary to what many believe, attendees are not ill or facing imminent death. But most have experienced the death of someone close to them.
  • Many meetings are hosted by social workers, hospice workers and chaplains. In Gig Harbor, Wash., end-of-life specialist Kristine Kevorkian (no blood relation to Dr. Jack Kevorkian) launched a Death Café in the spring.

 

Nevertheless, in a radio interview in Ohio, Miles said, “What really surprises me is that I’ve hosted 10 cafés in the Columbus area and it’s different every time.”

 

Evaluating the meetings, members are asked to write down one word that describes their Death Café experience. Here are a baker’s dozen that indicate the tone of most meetings: enlightening, liberating, alive, uplifting, hopeful, sharing, social, emotional, inspiring, intriguing, reflective, rewarding – and fun!

 

All pretty upbeat descriptions for conversation about death.

 

As Woody Allen once said, “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

 

In Atlanta, LaRocca-Pitts and Duvall, both hospice chaplains, take turns leading the sessions with low-key banter, humor and a hands-off approach to the conversations that take place among small groups.

 

And in a nod to ending on a light note, they lead the group in the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans tune: “Happy trails to you...till we meet again.”

 

***

Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband. More info on Facebook and at www.obitkit.com. 

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Comment by T.C. Goodwin on January 27, 2014 at 8:08am

Reading the blog post about "Death Café" . I do agree that advance directives and wills should be discussed prior to death. I also strongly believe that one should discuss cremation vs traditional burial.  Thanks Janet for sharing the post. Talking it over with others help .Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed (Proverbs 15:22 NIV).

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