A memory from a visit to my grandparent’s house when I was in my early twenties: My grandfather was still alive then, and he had endeavored to gather my sisters and I together for what was to be a Serious Conversation. We perched anxiously upon their saggy, sage green sofa, clutching scratchy, decorative throw pillows in our laps while my grandmother fidgeted nearby with the frayed edges of a napkins, appearing similarly frayed and on edge, herself.
“When your grandmother and I die…” he settled back in his chair and began the discussion, but trailed off uncertainly, while my sisters and I gripped hands and swallowed dryly, tears already streaming down our cheeks before he’d even said ten words. A stack of papers, several thick envelopes, and three notepads sat at his feet, untouched.
What followed was an awkward, sad, and terribly incomplete attempt on the part of my grandparents to prepare us for a time when they would no longer be around for us. I don’t blame this failure on them, of course. At the ages of 20, 22, and 24, my sisters and I almost had no experience at all with death, save for an uncle we barely knew and the grandparents on our father’s side, with whom we had no relationship. It was not a topic that was ever discussed in any capacity in our house or amongst ourselves until someone was, well…dead.
And even then, no one talked about it. It was sort of like, “well, THAT happened”, and life moved on. We never visited our feelings on whoever it was who had passed on, we certainly never weighed in on any decisions regarding the deceased, and come to think of it, we never actually attended any funerals. Whatever we knew of death was from books or film–Beaches and Steel Magnolias, primarily. And you can only watch Sally Field standing over Julia Robert’s grave having a magnificent nervous breakdown so many times before you decide, “nope, death’s not for me, not gonna deal with it, don’t want any part of that.”
But you have to deal with it, you eventually have no choice in the matter, and I came to learn this as I grew older. Being the oldest among my siblings, many responsibilities and obligations fall to me–also, being human, I don’t exactly relish this position. Most of the time, I rather resent it. And so I wish that I had summoned the strength and willingness to listen when my grandfather took the time to initiate that chat with us. He obviously didn’t want to have that talk, but he knew it was important and I should have had the foresight to realize that beyond the pain of losing someone, there is a lot of work to be done as relates to the dying process and death of a loved one…and sooner or later the work and related duties would fall to me. Wouldn’t it have been better to steel myself, open my heart, and allow this man who always wanted the best for me, to educate me on what to expect when he and my grandmother bid farewell to this world–rather than to have it thrust upon me blindly when it was too late?
I wish that death, as a concept and a reality, had been more present in our conversations, and from earlier on; that someone had drilled into me that death does not wait for you to have all your ducks in a row; that one cannot be terrified of death and avoid addressing it unless absolutely necessary; that the cycle of life and death that exists not just for me, but in all of nature and throughout the entire universe; that contemplating any or all of these things is not depressing, morbid, or neurotic, and as a matter of fact, a regular contemplation of death and a practice of “death awareness” can lead to greater happiness and a deeper appreciation of life.
Enter Death Cafe.
While death is inevitable, discussions about it are often taboo in American culture; wouldn’t it be something truly special then, to be able to gather with like-minded people in a safe space, in order to have these conversations?
This is the purpose of a Death Cafe; where people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death, the aim of which is “to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.” The Death Cafe model was developed by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid, based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz, and is a group directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes.
Death Cafes are always offered on a not for profit basis, in an accessible, respectful and confidential space, with no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action, and alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food. Curious as to where you can find a local Death Cafe to check out for yourself? As of today there have been 3827 Death Cafes in 40 countries and on their site you can find a map of previously held as well as upcoming Death Cafe events in your area, should you wish to attend one yourself.
In 2014 when I first learned of the concept, I, too, was curious and would have liked to attend a Death Cafe local to me in Orlando, Florida; unfortunately the closest one was a three hour drive away. Did I wish to attend so badly that I’d be willing to weather a cross-state trip, or, did I want to overcome my social anxiety for an afternoon and hold my own Death Cafe closer to home? Because that is totally an option, if you are up for it. Death Cafe is a ‘social franchise’, meaning that people who sign up to their guide and principles can use the name Death Cafe, post events to their website and talk to the press as an affiliate of Death Cafe. Was I up for it? Only one way to find out!
On May 17, 2014, I overcame my crippling fear of other people for an afternoon and held Orlando’s inaugural Death Cafe in my sister’s living room. I invited friends and strangers to an intimate gathering with the intended purpose of opening up the conversation on death in a respectful and friendly atmosphere where folks can express their views about death & dying and share engaging, thought provoking and life affirming conversation. I implored them to bring their questions and stories, their curiosity and experiences, but most of all–an open mind …and an appetite for cake and delicious treats!
Energized and exhilarated by the successful facilitation of 11 strangers showing up in a place to talk about death and eat cookies, during the following years of 2014-2016 I held three more Death Cafes in Orlando, one of which garnered attention from The Orlando Sentinel, and I am now working to promote interest for a Death Cafe in Daytona Beach, (which is where I live currently.)
If you, like me, are super jazzed about talking to a room full of random people about death and stuff, and are not able to find a local Death Cafe to do so, why not hold your own? The Death Cafe site has a comprehensive guide for this purpose, but sometimes it’s helpful to have personal tips and helpful pointers from an actual human someone who has been to there and done the thing.
1. Seriously. Read the Death Cafe How To Guide. It’s an excellent resource, and it’s there for a reason. Start there and come back here when you are done. Be certain to sign up on the site, agree to their terms and conditions, and familiarize yourself with their principals. Set up a profile for yourself, check out the practitioner’s page to see the kinds of questions that have been asked before and which may have garnered some helpful answers, and take a peek at some Death Cafe write ups to get a sense of what you’re in for!
2. Find a mentor. When I announced on my personal facebook page that I had an interest in holding my own Death Cafe, I came to learn through crowd-sourcing my questions to the hive-mind that there were people I knew, or friends of people I know, who had already done so! Through subsequent DMs, emails and phone calls, I learned so much from these generous people. If you can connect with someone who has had experience holding or hosting or facilitating a Death Cafe–talk to them! Ask them questions! See if they have any advice or stories or suggestions that they’d like to share.
3. Drumming up interest. Post about your upcoming Death Cafe event on the Death Cafe site (here’s an example). Share it across social media: facebook, twitter, tumblr, pinterest, instagram, google+, ello–wherever. Believe it or not, attendees from my first Death Cafe found me via posts on tumblr and Instagram! Post flyers at nearby college campuses if you are able to do so, or at your library, share with your church or spiritual group, reach out to your local news sources. Talk to people. Invite your open-minded friends and neighbors and acquaintances and urge them to bring a friend. You will find interest in the most unlikely places.
4. Decide on a venue that you are comfortable with. Death Cafes can be held in a variety of spaces–people’s homes, cafes and restaurants, community spaces, parks. etc. Personally, I want to provide an environment for attendees that feels safe and cozy, and so I have always held Death Cafes in residential homes…but your mileage may vary! Death Cafes could be held in actual, literal cafes or coffee shops, or perhaps a meeting room in a nearby library; I’ve even heard of them being held in yarn shops, book stores, or comic shops…and of course, cemeteries!
5. Don’t spend a lot of money! If you go the route of holding a Death Cafe in a restaurant, obviously food and refreshments are available for people to purchase. However, if you choose to hold your Death Cafe in a community space, or a home, then you are going to have to provide some food and drink and implements for which to eat and sup. If you know some local bakers or caterers and can finagle a donation or two, that’s great! You should introduce me. Otherwise, bake a treat or two yourself (might I suggest Irish Wake Cake or Funeral Biscuits), set up some bottles of water and a jug of iced tea, and let your guests know that refreshments are potluck and they should bring a dish to share. Encourage them to think of a food or a recipe that has a memory or a story attached to it, which always makes for pleasant chatter when strangers are meeting for the first time and nibbling on delightful foodstuffs. I don’t think I can stress enough the importance of delicious goodies to nourish and fortify your guests –cozying up so closely with Death for an afternoon, as you can imagine, leaves a soul a mite peckish.
6. Don’t freak out! Does the idea of a room full of people meeting without the structure of specific topics, set questions and/or guest speakers make your knees go wobbly? Me too, friend, me too. But just go with it. Resist the urge to create flash cards with subject matter keynotes–giving extra input or setting too much of an agenda “risks being presumptuous, restrictive and/or disempowering”, and trust me, when it comes to death, people have enough to discuss already. Get everyone started by telling them about Death Cafe, what it is, how it got started, and its basic principals, just to make sure everyone understands what its all about, and to give them some guidelines. Ask attendees to introduce themselves and share what brought them to Death Cafe today. So much of the discussion springs up from just that alone, and will no doubt continue sparked from enthusiastic threads of resultant chatter.
7. Don’t worry that you are not qualified. You are mortal, just like everyone else. We’re all going to die one day! What higher qualification does one need to hold a Death Cafe?
8. Have a really awesome guest book on hand for your attendees to sign. What! I’m not joking. So many great conversations arose around our Handbook For The Recently Deceased!
Just this autumn, I passed the Death Cafe Orlando torch to a passionate former attendee who is now taking the reigns, and in the next few months I will be present at their Death Cafe Orlando as an actual participating guest. What fun! I wonder what it will be like from the other side?
I also wonder now, if my grandfather were still alive today, would I share with him all of the death & dying related work I have been doing for the past two years, and what would he think of that? Hearkening back to our initial conversation on matters of mortality and practicality, began in earnest with the best of intentions on his part, yet stunted by my own anxieties, discomfort and lack of experience…I think he’d pick up a notebook, settle back in his chair, and listen intently.