DEATH CAFES – AN AFFIRMATION OF LIFE

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by Anna Louise Stewart

“Ooooh, I don’t know,” said the young man at the coffee shop counter when I presented him with the flyer for Death Cafe — an idea that is currently sweeping the country.

I had asked to hang up the flyer on their news board and after getting the manager’s permission, the young man helped me find a spot for it.

“I know you are young and don’t think this pertains to you, but death is the big mystery,” I said. “There is no way of knowing when it will happen.”

“Jeez, that makes me feel better,” he replied with a surly voice. Then he smiled. “I guess I will look twice when crossing the train tracks on my way home this afternoon.”

My encounter in the coffee shop so perfectly illustrates the taboo of death in western culture.

It also shows that when given the chance and the safe space to talk about death, people gain new awareness and appreciation for life.

According to Jon Underwood, the founder of Death Cafe, it ultimately builds a desire to contribute to communal and global problem solving and support.

The practice of casual conversation on the topic of death while enjoying food was first created by Bernard Crettaz, a sociologist and anthropologist who organized 30 “Café Mortals” in Switzerland, France and Belgium beginning in 2004. Crettaz’s mission is to “liberate death from the tyranny of silence.”

In 2010, Jon Underwood, a Buddhist practitioner from East London, was working on a series of projects about death when he came across the work of Crettaz. Underwood included Crettaz’s concept under the name of Death Cafe as part of his own project called Impermanence, a website offering funeral advisory and support plus links to information on dying, death and bereavement.

The first Death Cafe was held in the UK in 2011 and facilitated by Jon’s mother Sue Barsky Reid, a psychotherapist who also formulated the concept for the social franchise that it has become.

Lizzy Miles is a personable and quirky Ohio thanatologist (death study scientist) and social worker with a passion for hospice and end-of-life issues. She was the first to introduce Death Cafe in the United Sates by putting the project on Kickstarter and hosting the first event in Columbus, Ohio, in 2012. To this date, the number of Death Cafe events held in Europe, North America and Australia is nearing 500.

Death Cafe’s popularity is perhaps not a coincidence. The established funeral industry has been facing changes in recent years. There is a growing demand for more personalized and meaningful ceremonies tailored to the lifestyle of the deceased. What better way of facing the fact that your life could end at any given moment than planning your own funeral?

However, the broad appeal of Death Cafe is the informality of the setting, the camaraderie based in the fact that death is a common denominator across gender, race, age and status. It is inclusive — anybody with basic skills as a facilitator and an enthusiasm for death issues is invited to host one. It also targets a true need. As it turns out, people really do want to talk about death. Crettaz said that it brings out the authenticity in people. It is important to know, however, that Death Cafe is not a bereavement group and it is not grief counseling. Rather, it targets members of the larger community, regardless of direct experience with death.

The framework of Death Cafe is simple. Facilitators are asked to follow only a few guidelines:

  1. It should be a non-profit event. Donations or fundraising to cover expenses are permitted.

  2. There can be no intent of leading participants toward any particular compulsion, product or course of action, however well intended.

  3. It must be respectful to the individual and confidential.

  4. Tea and cake should be served.

When attending Death Cafe, it is important to be open and able to listen. It is advisable to speak only from your own direct experience. It is not meant to be a place for preaching a certain practice or viewpoint.

Jon Underwood’s finding that making peace with death actually increases people’s interest and involvement in global affairs is perhaps the most interesting aspect. “When we acknowledge that we are going to die, it falls back on ourselves to ask the question, Well, in this limited time that I’ve got, what’s important for me to do?” he says. Fear and the overwhelming nature of global problems is replaced with a desire to participate in the solutions.

The discussion brings greater awareness to our own everyday lives as well. It brings a precious mindfulness to the present, encouraging us to look twice before crossing the train tracks.

_Anna Louise Stewart hosted the first Death Cafe in Fort Collins in January, 2014. She is a death care worker based out of Crestone-End-Of-Life-Project and its sister project Informed Final Choices. She is also a massage therapist at Hands with Heart, specializing in the abdomen. <annalouise55@gmail.com>, 970-290-7710, www.crestone-end-of-life.org or www.secondbrainwisdom.blogspot.com