We find it a real conversation stopper to mention to our friends that we attended a Death Cafe in Ithaca last week. At a loss, they cast their eyes to the floor and then say something like “Wow, you two are really getting into this!” Death is a taboo subject in America, even though there are sound emotional, practical, and financial reasons for talking about it. Death Cafe offers a place for those conversations.
The name is off-putting, of course. If we’re doing our best to deny death, the last thing we want to do is to say the word. But perhaps that’s the genius of Jon Underwood, the Londoner who founded Death Cafe — if we’re going to try to get a perspective on this thing, we have to pronounce its name. Once we have gained some perspective, we’ll be a little freer to experience the joy of life.
More than 2,200 Death Cafes have been held in 31 countries since they got underway in 2011. There are no agendas, no guest speakers, no team-building exercises, and no flip charts. People, often strangers, simply sit down and talk while enjoying light refreshments. Death Cafe guidelines stress that the meetings are not bereavement groups nor therapy sessions — they are simply places to talk. Facilitators are encouraged to promote open and straightforward discussion.
This certainly happened at the Death Cafe we attended. In Ray’s group, we talked of all sorts of things that had been on our minds.
Is cremation environmentally safe? Some doubted it, but others pointed out that in the great scheme of things the amount of natural gas consumed probably wasn’t very great. Anyway, cremation gives survivors a lot of options in terms of dealing with the remains.
Why is it that doctors often seem not to know what to do with our advance directives, even though we’ve all been encouraged to leave a copy with them? Perhaps because physicians can be just as reluctant to talk about death as anyone else.
I mentioned dealing with a relative, nearing death, who really needed to go into assisted living, but was fighting it tooth and nail. I drew some comfort from learning that my experience wasn’t at all unusual. Others had found just what I did — once someone finally accepts assisted living, they are likely to feel happier and more secure than they have in months.
I learned of the existence of the Funeral Consumer’s Alliance, “dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral.” The organization’s website offers useful information on planning a funeral. A local chapter publishes an annual cost comparison for funeral homes in the southern Finger Lakes.
At my (Donna’s) breakout group, the mood was one of willingness to share. I was the only newcomer, but there was no sense of awkwardness for being there for the first time. It is truly an open and inviting environment.
Like Ray’s group, we touched on a number of subjects: everyone is invited to open a topic that’s on the mind. We talked of the extraordinary medical measures that seem to occur, even when the patient and/or family have previously indicated no desire for such. While doctors may be reluctant to deal with the finality of an illness or accident, one observation was that it is often the nursing staff that have a clear view of the situation and are able to relate it to the family. (This was actually the case when we lost Ray’s mom.) There was also discussion of whether we know what our own choices will be when the time comes: the urge for life is extremely strong.
We talked of becoming comfortable with using the words death and mortality. After all, if we can’t accept it ourselves, how are we to broach the topic with our children and others when it comes time to have The Conversation that is included in nearly all advice for aging and dying responsibly.
We also talked about hospice care, green cemeteries, and so much else.
In short, we both found attending Ithaca’s Death Cafe to be an informative and valuable experience — even enjoyable. Laughter was often heard from the tables of the discussion groups. It was an experience we intend to keep talking about.
The Death Cafe website includes a list of upcoming cafes. If you can’t find one near you, there are instructions for organizing one. Have you been to a Death Cafe? Let us know your experience.