What Happens at a Death Café?

By Shepherd Bliss, Sonoma County, Northern California

Putting the words “death” and “café” together may seem unusual. In the United States, many of us ignore our own pending, inevitable mortality. Many Americans do not accept that they will surely die, much less talk openly about it with others, especially strangers. On the other hand going to one’s favorite café is something that many enjoy. Being in a café setting talking about death may not seem inviting, yet it can be invigorating.

Death Cafes began in Europe. More than 5,400 monthly Death Cafes now exist in over 52 countries. Initiated in 2010 by John Underwood in London, they began in Sonoma County, California, soon after that, with various facilitators over time.

Adults of all ages are invited to sit around tables, share snacks and tea. They talk about their experiences, hopes, and fears at Death Cafes around the world. The basic idea is to create a comfortable, informal, and respectful environment, where people can talk openly and candidly.

Tess Lorraine has been facilitating them monthly since 2014 in Santa Rosa and began offering them in Sebastopol this January on the third Friday of each month, 3:30 to 5 p.m., at the Sebastopol Area Senior Center. They are open to all adults. The Santa Rosa gatherings happen at the Fountaingrove Lodge on Saturday afternoons.

“Increasingly, as we age, conversations happen regarding degenerative and life-threatening diagnoses,” said Lorraine. “The cost of denial is that we lose the opportunities for the wisdom, growth, and healing that can occur when we share authentically. Our death is our final frontier and our lasting legacy.”

In a Sonoma Death Café monthly newsletter Lorraine published the following Ancient Celtic Wisdom poem:

 

Be a full bucket, drawn up the dark way of the well.

Something lifts you up into the light

and shows you your wings.

A full cup is set before you.

You taste only sacredness.

According to the deathcafe.com website, “At a Death Cafe people gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. Our objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’…There is no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action.”

“A Death Cafe is a group-directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counseling session,” the website continues.

Death Cafés are not a place to proselytize, seeking to convert others to one’s beliefs about death and dying. It is a place to tell and honor one’s stories, as well as to hear different perspectives.

Death Cafes offer a structure and format that encourage conversation. Laughter is not unusual, especially as people get to know each other and feel comfortable enough to share in a safe, facilitated environment. Death Cafes are one indication of growing death awareness here and elsewhere in the U.S.

“For everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…,” according to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk “Thich Nhat Hanh had a beautiful way of putting it when a little girl asked him if he’d decided what he’d be in his next life. He said maybe a little dust, and some soil and a bit of the sky, a cloud, a flower, and perhaps other stuff. Then he said ‘oops,’ he had to be careful or he might step on the flower, if he wasn’t being mindful and laughed,” according to Deborah Thayer.

Many indigenous cultures are more death aware than the dominant American cultures. For example, this reporter lived in Mexico and appreciates that country’s annual Day of the Dead celebration, where families go to graveyards at night to honor their ancestors. It is still my favorite holiday. I have attended them here in Sonoma County.

A deep connection exists between love and death. As the poem “For Those Who Have Died” by Chaim Stern starts “’Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.”

For more information and to get on the monthly email list for Sonoma County Death Café meetings: tesslorraine@mac.com.

 

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44 comments

      1. BillS

        The Stoics had much the same idea as the Buddhists in this regard–as well as a sense of humor!

        “I must die. If soon, then I die. However, if a little later, I will take lunch now, since the hour for lunch has come, and afterwards I will die at the appointed time.”

        Epictetus, Discourses I

        Reply
        1. fresno dan

          https://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/warren-zevon-and-the-art-of-dying-20021128

          Warren Zevon is sitting at a table in a Hollywood hotel cafe, patiently waiting for someone to bring him a menu. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes seep by. “At a time like this,” he says with an arched eyebrow and a low, rumbling laugh, “you really get the feeling of time marching on.”
          =====================================
          Well, if I am to die after lunch, I am getting up early, its going be one long sex (well, if I can get any) drugs, rock and roll morning. Oh, and to hell with low carb and low fat….

          Reply
          1. John Barker

            Yes, I’ve heard that before, but other than the “jokiness” quotient I really don’t get it as a meaningful way to go.
            If I knew for near certain that my appointment with the reaper was coming on rapidly I would want to see, touch, hug, kiss, and visit one last time with all the people I’ve loved and cared about in life. I would want them to know how much they have meant to me and how much I will miss being there with them just a few hours from now …

            Reply
  1. leondarrell

    Thanks for this…I haven’t heard of a Death Cafe before. It parallels the same intent of Families Anonymous meetings where people share their stories of addicted loved-one’s struggles; no advice, no judgment, no choosing, no method, no guru.

    Reply
  2. Stephen V.

    Thank you Yves!. I am in the process of preparing for DC first meet next Tuesday here in the *Athens of the Ozarks*–as it was called before SEC Football.
    Have also been reading “Being Mortal ” by Gawande, swallowing my bias of surgeons as high priests. He has a Chapter called ‘A Better Life’ wherein he tells the story of one Chase Memorial Nursing home–the introduction of (lots !) of animals into the population. It’s hilarious but surprisingly *concrete material benefits* result:: deaths fell 15% & drug costs 38%. Why isn’t this done everywhere? Therein lies the tale.
    It seems clear to me that a ‘ from the gutter to the castle’ change in attitudes toward death would transform skyrocketing death prevention medical costs…for starters. Not to mention the absurdly high cost of putting bodies in the ground.

    Reply
  3. Patrick Donnelly

    Fear of Death is part of the Authority program: “You need a priest” etc Fear of this or that makes slaves of a mass of people.

    No, we do not need to fear!

    As souls we are immortal. Which is not as great as it is sometimes cracked up to be!

    Reply
    1. Amfortas the Hippie

      I agree. that whole death industry thing…embalming, fancy boxes, ostentatious memorial marbles…as well as the regulations and such that reinforce them…have always felt strange to me.
      Funeral homes…and their employees…always creeped me out, and not because of their reason for being(mortality), but because they are so fake and anodyne…all pastels and lace and gold laquer.(and cold hands).
      I’ve prevailed upon my wife and boys that all I will require is a keg of Shiner, a couple of cords of wood and a gallon or two of diesel….in the back pasture.(then plant an oak tree or three when the ashes blow away) Total cost to my heirs:under $400.
      One problem with this idea(and the reason I can’t require instead to be left on the mountain for the birds) is the law. it says that, sans embalming, my bunch has 24 hours to do away with me.
      This has little to do with “public health”(like “they” care one whit about that,lol), and everything to do with the death industry lobby.
      Like the rest of our lives, we are divorced from Nature in this, too.
      what should be an expected and necessary part of our journey is instead rendered terrifying and disgusting.
      I’m pleased that this sort of thing is happening, even though it smacks of twelve step infantalisation(perhaps it must be that way, given the rest of the culture(sic))

      Reply
      1. Rory

        If you get a chance, read a story by Minnesota author Will Weaver called “A Gravestone Made of Wheat.” I think you would like it.

        Reply
      2. fresno dan

        “One problem with this idea(and the reason I can’t require instead to be left on the mountain for the birds) is the law. it says that, sans embalming, my bunch has 24 hours to do away with me.
        This has little to do with “public health”(like “they” care one whit about that,lol), and everything to do with the death industry lobby.”

        I agree one squillion percent!!!!! Every living thing is dying and 99.99999999999999% aren’t getting buried. Leave me to the buzzards, coyotes, rats and beetles.

        Reply
        1. Amfortas the Hippie

          Kid:” should we bury ’em Josie?”
          Josey Wales: “Buzzards gotta eat, same as worms…”

          I’ve also considered, as my last act of defiance, to make like Buffalo Hump(he lived around here), when he determined that it was time to go, and wander off into the wilderness…perhaps thereby making it a “burial ground”, and (in a perfect world) somehow protected.
          Maybe we should make all of our remaining wildernesses into “burial grounds”. I could probably sell that to my large landowner neighbors, if it would divert the pipeline or powerline or reservoir. “cheap burial in the Hill Country” might even sound good to less well off folks in the big city.

          Reply
          1. Lee

            Having spent some of the best hours of my life observing critters in Yellowstone, I find appealing the idea of my last act being to pick a fight and engage in unarmed combat with a grizzly bear. Probably not a good idea, given what might follow for the bear at the hands of the park service. Given current policy, bears are often held harmless for attacking humans under some circumstances. However, the bear might find me so easy to kill and tasty that it would add humans to its shopping list.

            Reply
            1. Wukchumni

              Somebody committed suicide near one of the lesser used entrances to Sequoia NP a few years ago, and a bear had made off with an ARM loan, when the corpus derelicti was found.

              Reply
      3. PrairieBear

        You know the old song “Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie?” That sounds to me like exactly the right burial place.

        In some places, there are “green burial” options available. I have been trying to look into that but so far the Green Burial Council https://greenburialcouncil.org/ in my state, although there is one funeral home provider of minimal prep services. I think my state does not require embalming. Cremation might be somewhat appealing if I had a site like yours, but my preference, like yours, would be just to be left out somewhere remote. Shallow burial with trees and plants on top would be fine, too.

        Reply
        1. Amfortas the Hippie

          I admit that the idea of the spectacle of a huge bonfire immolating my mortal remains is somewhat appealing.
          Like Tom Joad, “I’ll be there, Ma…”

          it shouldn’t cost so much to die.
          (of course, it arguably shouldn’t cost so much to live, either. I was, after all, born on this planet)

          Reply
          1. Ellery O'Farrell

            We gave my mother’s ashes to the Pacific Ocean at Haystack Rock, a beach she’d always loved. The sun rose over the hills to the east just at the moment the waves took her to themselves.

            Reply
    2. blennylips

      Thank you Patrick. I’ve always felt that fear of death is the handle we are controlled by.

      Once a year or so, I give a listen to Stephen Molyneux’s meditation on this:

      The story of your enslavement
      http://www.lawfulrebellion.org/2011/08/17/the-story-of-your-enslavement/
      (video and transcript)

      The greatest resource for any human being to control is not natural resources, or tools, or animals or land — but other human beings.

      You can frighten an animal, because animals are afraid of pain in the moment, but you cannot frighten an animal with a loss of liberty, or with torture or imprisonment in the future, because animals have very little sense of tomorrow.

      You cannot threaten a cow with torture, or a sheep with death. You cannot swing a sword at a tree and scream at it to produce more fruit, or hold a burning torch to a field and demand more wheat.

      You cannot get more eggs by threatening a hen – but you can get a man to give you his eggs by threatening him

      When a soul is invoked, who you else you gonna call?

      Tribute to Richard Dawkins: We Are Going to Die
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOXMjCnKwb4

      Reply
  4. Carla

    The Cleveland Memorial Society holds Death Cafes in various locations around Northeast Ohio — I attended one several months ago. The CMS is a membership organization offering access to reasonably priced burials and cremations to their members in exchange for one small lifetime membership fee: http://www.clevelandmemorialsociety.org

    Reply
  5. Big River Bandido

    Thank you for this piece, what a cool thing.

    When I first moved to New York I worked as an office “temp” for a few years, and one of my assignments was a short stint at Gilda’s Club. Different from Death Cafés in that they are focused on coping with cancer…but similar in that the clubs serve to break down barriers to discussion of a taboo. It was by far one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.

    Reply
  6. freedeomny

    Well – you are dead for a heck of a lot longer than you are alive. People should really start talking (thinking) about it more than they do. It makes a big difference in how you view your life, your days, your minutes.

    Reply
    1. fresno dan

      freedeomny
      January 11, 2018 at 9:53 am

      Its a funny thing – no one worries about ALL THE TIME one didn’t exist before one was born. If not existing is so terrible….well, why don’t I hear anyone EVER complain about all the eons they didn’t exist before they existed….

      Reply
      1. MichaelSF

        “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

        ― Mark Twain

        Reply
      2. Lee

        I regret (like a lot of us, I suspect) that I will never see a dinosaur in the flesh. I know, birds are dinosaurs and they are lovely, but it’s just not quite the same. And then there’s saber toothed tigers, dire wolves, aurochs, the Dodo and so on.

        Reply
  7. Wukchumni

    I visit my mom every month or so at her assisted living place, where most everybody is in their late 80’s to mid 90’s, and if anything there is a shared guilt of living so long, as their bodies can hardly support the habit anymore-lots of walkers & scooters. We talk about dying sometimes over dinner, and it’s hardly taboo when they discuss it.

    Somebody is turning 100 next month-which is cause for a party, and my mom tells me this will be the 3rd such fest since she’s been there.

    Reply
    1. Anon

      My grandfather lived to be 100 (1898-1998). Came to California in a covered wagon. Experienced the San Francisco earthquake (1906) first-hand. Became a successful rancher/businessman: loved his grandchildren and ranch animals equally (I think.) Restored historic horse and horse-less carriages and stored them out of public view at the Spreckels Ranch (sugar dynasty) in Sonoma: until we convinced him to send them to public museums.

      Pretty certain I’m not built for the Century mark.

      Reply
  8. Lee

    Oddly enough I first encountered this 12th century poem in a recent tv series on Netflix. But this beautiful poem is about the living coming to terms with the deaths of others, not oneself. My own preparations for the latter event (Or is it a non-event? “The only moment of my life I will not have to experience”, as Sartre put it) is to put my affairs in order for the benefit of others, to read Artul Gawande’s Being Mortal and to engage in contemplation of being and non-being. Now I’m free to bugger on more or less without a care so far as my non-existence is concerned. Sonoma is not far from me and there are some great motorcycling roads up that way. The idea of a two-wheeled trip up there to hang out in a Death Cafe sound interesting, so long as the coffee and the company are good.

    Yehuda HaLevi quotes (showing 1-7 of 7)

    “Tis a Fearful Thing

    ‘Tis a fearful thing
    to love what death can touch.

    A fearful thing
    to love, to hope, to dream, to be –

    to be,
    And oh, to lose.

    A thing for fools, this,

    And a holy thing,

    a holy thing
    to love.

    For your life has lived in me,
    your laugh once lifted me,
    your word was gift to me.

    To remember this brings painful joy.

    ‘Tis a human thing, love,
    a holy thing, to love
    what death has touched.”

    ― Yehuda HaLevi
    https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1647018.Yehuda_HaLevi

    Reply
  9. Plenue

    “The Vietnamese Buddhist monk “Thich Nhat Hanh had a beautiful way of putting it when a little girl asked him if he’d decided what he’d be in his next life. He said maybe a little dust, and some soil and a bit of the sky, a cloud, a flower, and perhaps other stuff. Then he said ‘oops,’ he had to be careful or he might step on the flower, if he wasn’t being mindful and laughed,” according to Deborah Thayer.”

    That’s nice, except that it isn’t true. There are no next lives, or afterlives, or anything else.

    This all seems like part of the Death Positivity nonsense. On a certain level you do have to accept it, because it is going to happen, in order to even function. But I’m not going to pretend to be happy about it. And I’d prefer to not create fairy tales to deceive myself into feeling better about it.

    Reply
    1. Daryl

      Seemed like he suggested that as well by saying he’d become organic recycled matter instead of being reincarnated as a specific thing.

      There are plenty of philosophies which are agnostic towards or deny the concept of the afterlife which have a “death positive” outlook; as mentioned above Stoicism and also Epicureanism cultivated this sort of attitude.

      Reply
  10. Unna

    Poems by Sappho on Death:

    We know this much
    Death is an evil;
    we have the gods’
    word for it; they too
    would die if death
    were a good thing

    and:

    Yea, thou shalt die,
    And lie
    Dumb in the silent tomb;
    Nor to thy name
    Shall there be any fame
    In ages yet to be or years to come:
    For of the flowering Rose,
    Which on Pieria blows,
    Thou hast no share:
    But in sad Hades’ house,
    Unknown, inglorious,
    ‘Mid the dim shades that wander there
    Shalt thou flit forth and haunt the filmy air.

    Reply
  11. D

    Apologies, but,

    At this death cult time when mortality rates are obscenely and needlessly rising and so many – well ‘before their time’- are either being bombed to smithereens or needlessly economically (and consequently physically) crippled to the point they suspect the wealthy wish they would just die off (after every dime has been sucked from them), I can hardly imagine this taking hold except among handfuls of the economically stable, and predominantly caucasions, such as the web developer founder, Jon Underwood, appears to have been. Most who believe they are being economically killed off, will not be visiting these cafes; as they are deperately trying to keep death from their door, and those of their loved ones.

    I suspect death cafes have been labeled numerous times by racial minorities and white people in both the middle & lower classes as on the list of stupid things white people who can afford the leisure time (and like tea and cake), and mostly aren’t dying do.

    People can wax eloquent all they want about death when they don’t feel threatened by it before their time, and are financially equipped for it. It appears, after doing some searching that maybe a predominance of the cafe-ers fit this category, certainly the founder does, though apparently he died this past July, quite unexpectedly at 44, of leukemia at 44).

    Further, philosophical conversations about death take place in real life on a daily basis, they always have, even at parties, likely at many New Years Parties; why should they be planned and Branded as such?

    I’m with Plenue on the Death Positivity note, death will never be a fun experience, but its a given for biological humans.

    Logging off now that I’ve pulled this trigger after mulling it since early this morning, but not before saying that I love that Sappho poem, Unna, thank you!.

    Reply
    1. UserFriendly

      Not quite. As someone who is poor as shit and does not see anyway out I would be absolutely thrilled if I got hit by a bus tomorrow. My life sucks and it likely always will. I’ll be paying student loans off till I’m in my 80’s at this rate.

      Reply
  12. tongorad

    Death is not an event in my life, I will not live through it. What me worry?
    It is sickness that I am hung up about. Especially in this country.

    Reply
  13. D

    User friendly, take a deep breath, I am feeling the same way – no way out -but then I think: something ugly wants me to die.

    Take another deep breath and realize that death cafes were not created by those who wanted to die.

    Reply
  14. Sandra Murphey

    I’ve attended 3 of these. I went to the first one with a friend who was dying of cancer. I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m open to many things, and found that it was wonderful to listen to and share thoughts and feelings about this mysterious event that we all face, or have faced.

    When my friend of 25 years recently died, I knew that the Death Cafe would be the perfect place to express my grief, and to share one of the many letters he wrote to me over those years. Sometimes those closest to us are at a loss when we’re grieving.

    Death is usually seen as a negative thing, except for those of us who wish it would hurry up, especially if we’re dealing with a loss of function and independence, which makes living a daily struggle. Who wouldn’t welcome the Angel of Death to embrace us?

    I’m so glad I took the risk of doing something “positively negative”. My friends understand that it’s just part of my weirdness. I just offer it, with no expectations, except that many will say “No, that’s not for me!”

    Not many will volunteer to discuss the topic of death, although it has proven to be very popular throughout the world. The interesting thing is that it’s faciliated by volunteers, some of whom are Hospice workers, and there is no fee, exept by donation. This is one event that hasn’t been monetized, which is refreshing in itself.

    Check out the Death Cafe, and treasure life even more.

    Reply

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