on February 1, 2014 - 12:01 AM
Just the name – Death Cafe – can evoke a gasp.
There seems to be an inherent and irreconcilable contradiction between the images evoked by the two words. On the one hand, you have a cafe, an enjoyable spot where friends gather to chat, laugh and sip coffee. On the other hand, there is death, the grim end to all earthly pleasures and accomplishments, the very mention of which can evoke discomfort and a quick change of subject.
But it’s that exact combination, the focus on our ultimate end in an enjoyable, social atmosphere, that has drawn more than 3,000 people to meetings of Death Cafes, a concept started in 2011 in England and now offered in more than 470 places across the world, including two in Western New York.
“I think ‘Death Cafe’ is a strong phrase, but I’ve come to peace with it,” said Tim Baxter, director of operations at historic Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, where one of the two local Death Cafes meets. “It does wake people up: ‘What? Death Cafe?’ ”
“Death is going to happen to everybody; there is no way out of it,” Baxter said. “So you can talk about it – and studies have shown that when you do, you can value your life more – or you can ignore it. If you want to ignore it, don’t come to the Death Cafe.”
At the two local Death Cafes, during which facilitators guide discussion on many aspects of death and dying, participants boldly confront one of our society’s few remaining primal taboos.
Specific topics change as each Death Cafe’s discussions proceed, with people contributing opinions, experiences and questions, but the focus seldom strays far from the ultimate end. Whether it’s the physical changes a body undergoes at death or the social difficulties of widowhood, participants bring a keen curiosity and some very personal insights to some of the toughest topics humans can discuss.
The Death Cafe is a discussion group about the idea of death, “rather than a grief support or counseling session,” according to the organizers. A few simple rules are provided: The cafes should be offered on a not-for-profit basis; they should not be designed to lead people to “any conclusion, product or course of action,” and discussions should be accompanied by “refreshing drinks and nourishing food – and cake!”
The two local Death Cafes, which, oddly enough, held their first meetings on consecutive days in early October, are very different in form and nature. But the focus of both is the same.
At each Death Cafe, beyond a brief introduction of participants, there was no small talk. Instead, the groups each immediately began an open, thoughtful conversation.
It is perhaps this intensity, caused by the abandonment of pretense, that leads to the deep satisfaction many report after attending a Death Cafe.
“We kept it very laid-back. We had the desserts, which are a very important part of it, and coffee and tea. And we had the most wonderful experience of our lives,” said Michelle Kratts, a librarian, genealogist and tour guide at Oakwood. “The thing I remember the most is that we all had stories. There may have been a few tears shed here and there, but mostly that we laughed like crazy.”
Among the gravestones
At the inaugural meeting Oct. 10 of the first local Death Cafe, held in the former caretaker’s house in Oakwood, facilitator Kratts came prepared in case conversation lagged. She handed a blank card to each person who entered and asked that they write a question about death on the card, then drop it anonymously into a basket.
Conversation flowed so smoothly during the gathering that Kratts did not need the questions. In fact, she and Baxter found that most of the questions were addressed naturally during the discussion. And the challenge that faced Kratts and Baxter was ending the discussion and getting the participants to leave, they said.
“People wanted to keep talking after the two hours we planned,” said Kratts. “Tim and I finally had to say, ‘It’s getting late.’ People didn’t want to leave; their experience was so comforting.”
At the group’s second meeting on a freezing night in January, with the lights from the caretaker’s house the only bright spot among the 18.5 acres of gravestones, more than a dozen people helped themselves to coffee, tea and cocoa, then perched on chairs in a circle in the living room of the old house.
Some of the people already knew each other, including several members of Niagara Falls Paranormal, one of whom brought a monitor that detects electromagnetic frequencies and is used in ghosthunting. Kratts’ mother, Beverly Barthel, and 13-year-old son, Brendan, also attended. Others were strangers to each other, including Jill Edwards, who traveled from Cobourg, Ont., to participate in the Death Cafe with an eye toward bringing the concept to her hometown. Kratts also invited two guests, Robert W. DuBois, a licensed funeral director and former Niagara County coroner, and the Rev. Mike Keicher, a chaplain who works with DuBois at the funeral home.
Kratts began the meeting with a quick summary of the philosophy behind Death Cafes, then read a submitted question, which was whether the dead leave signs for the living, including pennies and feathers. Several people contributed their experiences and opinions, then speculated about why that particular method might be common for people to receive messages from the departed.
Barthel told the group that she often smells cinnamon, a fragrance she links with her late husband.
“I’m a believer in the afterlife,” said Barthel, “and I think they choose to comfort us in that way.”
From there, the conversation took off, with DuBois sharing both his personal and professional experiences.
“People around a dying person will report that the dying person is talking to departed relatives around them,” said DuBois.
“I know this group is focused on death, but to have a good death, you have to have a good life,” said Edwards.
The two hours went by quickly as people shared their funny, poignant, interesting comments and insights about death. And somehow, the discussion kept slipping back to life – how to savor every moment, knowing that it will end.
That natural tendency echoes precisely the objective of the Death Cafe concept, as stated on its website: “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
David R. Dow is a professor and death-penalty attorney whose new book, “Things I’ve Learned From Dying: A Book About Life,” tells the story of three very different deaths: a client executed in Texas, Dow’s father-in-law, who accepted his own death from cancer, and Dow’s family dog, Winona, whose sudden illness and death devastated the family.
“If you had asked me what I thought about Death Cafes before I went through the experience of watching my father-in-law die, I think I would have said that they were good for other people, but I already know everything, so maybe I can just give a couple of lectures,” said Dow, who has seen many people die in his work as a lawyer for the condemned. “And I suspect I’m not unique in that way.”
After experiencing the three different deaths he described in his book, he said “I actually think that there is a huge amount to the subject of death, that it is a very, very deep subject, and that it has a whole lot of lessons on how we ought to live our lives that are not just cliches, like ‘Live every day as if it’s your last one,’ which really doesn’t mean anything.”
While many members of the Niagara Falls group wanted to discuss the mechanics of death and dying, the eight people who sat around a table in a conference room at the Jewish Community Center in Getzville focused more on the philosophical meaning of life and its end.
This group, unlike the Niagara Falls one, was on the third of what would be six weekly 90-minute meetings.
As the participants got to know each other better, they were able to customize their gatherings. For example, after the first meeting, there was no cake.
At the group’s first meeting, said facilitator Andre Toth, a psychotherapist, “They offered coffee and cake. A beautiful apple cake, to sort of soften the atmosphere, but nobody ate the cake, and nobody drank the coffee. I don’t think it’s necessary, actually. We managed without it.”
“I had advertised it as, ‘Come talk about death and eat cake.’ In other words, come celebrate life,” said Sheila Shapiro, who runs several discussion groups at the center. “Unfortunately, everybody at the Jewish Center is on a diet, so nobody wants to eat anything sweet, but the metaphor stands.”
The conversation flowed from the first meeting, said Toth, who researched possible topics before each meeting. Those who joined the group brought comments, questions and their own very personal insights into death.
Shapiro recalled her own first reaction to the phrase “Death Cafe.”
“I was like, what? Then I read about it,” she said. As she discussed forming a local group with Toth and talked about it with others, she said, “I got reactions like, ‘What are you, crazy?’ When people react like that, I think that’s a reflection of fear, because they think, ‘I’m not going to die!’ ”
At the first meeting, Toth asked everyone to introduce themselves, then explain why they chose to attend and what they hoped to get out of it.
“I took notes and some of the things they said, I had already thought about, but others I hadn’t, so ultimately it was a mixture of what they said they wanted and some things that other groups had done,” he said.
He said that the topics the group addressed included “what it means not to exist and the meaning of nothingness,” as well as practical matters such as health care proxies and how to broach the topic of mortality with adult offspring.
“It’s mostly personal, although sometimes people get into more of an intellectual discourse. A lot of things sparked a lively discussion,” said Toth. “Some people express themselves a lot, and others less, but most people express themselves when you hit something that really interests them.”
Because the group met weekly, its members were able to continue discussions and even do some research and writing between meetings. For one session, Toth asked them to bring a piece of writing – their own, or by someone else – related to the topic of death.
For her contribution, Emily Tall read the evocative poem, “Uphill,” by Christina Rossetti, which begins:
“Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.”
At another meeting, Toth asked participants to write their own obituaries.
Shapiro said, “What I learned about doing that exercise was that I don’t want an obituary when the time comes, because anybody I care about knows all about me. But doing it really made me think about what is important to me now.”
In one meeting, a guest objected to the name “Death Cafe” and suggested that it instead be called a “Life Cafe.” But Toth disagreed. The name is important, he said.
“To call it a life cafe is to feed into the taboo that we are trying to overcome – to be able to talk about death as a natural process, rather than avoiding talking about it.”