I went to a “Death Cafe”

I went to what was billed as a “Death Café” where people “drink tea, eat cake and discuss death” in a safe, intimate setting. On face it sounded like an intriguing and important idea. It was the second time such an event had been hosted locally and having regretted not going to the first, I made a point to show up at this one.

It wasn’t initially clear to me who was sponsoring it but a hospice person facilitated the group. The way it was presented was that people don’t typically have an opportunity to talk about death and this gives them one. Sort of demystifying it I guess. For me, that’s not been the case. I’ve been talking about death, and more specifically grief, for a long time. I don’t shy from it. Fortunately, the material available on both subjects has greatly expanded in the last 20 years or so. It’s a big field now.

About that cake… There WAS a cake cleverly decorated with a “Day of the Dead” style skeleton head, but sadly, it wasn’t cut, and sat there on the refreshment table untouched throughout the 90 minute evening. Sigh. When you promise me cake by god, you best deliver cake I say. (The moderator said one of us should be brave and cut the first piece. I asserted that no one would. I was right.)

The group was a bit too large to function as intimate and as is often the case, a few people did a lot of the talking. What dismayed me was the presence of several sales people. They weren’t introduced in that way but it became clear that they worked in the funeral industry. Had it been advertised to include them, I might have felt differently but their presence shifted the focus of the discussion and its tenor somewhat.

One of my issues with death is the death industry. The money-making aspect. It’s big business. Yes, someone needs to do it – we don’t want to be building our own coffins for loved ones and trooping out into the woods, assuming you can find some, to bury them – but I resent having it packaged for profit. And playing on people’s emotions and vulnerability. I’m not saying everyone does this but we’ve all seen the ads with scare tactics: WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO YOUR FAMILY WHEN YOU’RE GONE? WHO WILL PAY FOR YOUR FUNERAL? DOESN’T YOUR LOVED ONE DESERVE THE BEST IN THEIR FINAL RESTING PLACE? And more of that ilk.

I was reminded, for about the 1,734th time that I am not a big fan of groups. They generally don’t work for me independent of the subject. I vastly prefer one-on-one conversation. Or even reading a book on a subject, just me and the author. I get more from it. And having participated in a variety of group situations over the years, I have to say the facilitator is a huge part of whether the group functions well or not. It ‘s a rare skill to lead a group well. The Death Café moderator was fine, a congenial, largely hands-off fellow but the guidelines he set out for talking weren’t followed by everyone.

If I have to be in a group (and mostly my life is set up so I don’t have to!) I like the method where an object is placed in the center of the room and a person must pick up and hold the object in order to speak. When they are done they put it back. Only the person holding the object may speak. Also, if you see somebody getting up for the 8th time to pick up the object you can casually stick out your foot and trip them. Haha! No, you really can’t.

I do think we should talk more about death, both in terms of practical matters as well as more personal ones. It’s coming. Not talking about it won’t change that. When you’re spry and of lucid mind, that’s the time to “make your wishes” known. My driver’s license has listed me as a donor as far back as I’ve had one. More significantly, I filled out the “Advance Directive” a couple years ago, had two non-family members sign it and then gave a copy to a family member and one to a non-family member to keep. It was a big step in the right direction. It made me feel like a grown-up.

http://deathcafe.com/

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12 thoughts on “I went to a “Death Cafe”

  1. vanbytheriver

    Wow. That is fascinating. I just came from a senior center where folks witness death of friends on a daily basis. They provide a framed photo and small floral display for each one as they depart, just before they empty and re-rent their vacant apartment. It’s even worse than the preoccupation with the newspaper obits that I saw from elderly family members. It is important to discuss before we all get to that point. Like you, I’d have been disappointed at the funeral industry reps…ugh. I choose to be cremated, but am rethinking the organ donation. Not sure any of my aging organs would be of benefit. Thanks, Colette. Interesting topic.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I have to figure it’s all-business at a senor center. Move ’em in, move ’em out. It’s sad. (We have a local seniors rental residence and I can’t help but notice how often furniture is piled outside by the dumpsters and I think either somebody else has gone to a “care” facility or died.) I also want cremation. I’m not certain but I think they want organs no matter your age.

      The trouble with being elderly IS watching your friends and family die. The people “who knew you when” or at least have your frame of life reference are gone, and it’s the rare elderly person who has it in them to go out and make new friends or cultivate relationships with younger people. We segregate our population by age and we all pay for that I think.

      Thanks for commenting – I was getting close to asking on your blog if all was okay with you.

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      1. vanbytheriver

        The MIL is making new friends there, most of them are quite ambulatory, but there is a stepping stone to more care, they are affiliated with a major hospital facility, with several levels before hospice. That is the saddest. Thanks for your concern, I took off without an announcement this time. 💕

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Hey Wendy, I thought it was you who went to the first one and said good things? That was why I wanted to go! I don’t mean to be entirely down on it. It is a worthy idea.

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  2. C.E.Robinson

    Colette, an honest post. Agree, I also shy away from group discussions. I’d definitely stay away from a Death Cafe gathering. I have all the important end of life paperwork done. I’ve openly talked about death with family, even to the point of saying, I’ll write my own obituary to help out. That got a chuckle from my youngest son. I just wrote a tribute obituary for my best friend. Also an obituary for my ex-husband. Personalization is important to me! 💛 Christine

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thanks Christine. Good for you. I think you’re ahead of a lot of people with your comfort level on the subject of death. Being so prepared is a gift you give to people, a final gift. I’ve written a few things when people died; it feels necessary to me. Like you say it adds that personalization when death and funerals have become increasingly packaged. (I sure don’t want a “celebration of a life” service; I want mourners dammit!)

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  3. battlewagon13

    A death cafe? With cake? I guess I understand (but not really) the purpose, but I think actually calling it a death cafe tends to take away from the seriousness of the moment, no? I applaud you for going and sharing the experience so that I won’t ever have to 🙂

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      No, I don’t think it would be your kind of thing. I think the name is to make it more commonplace, a place to talk about death, serious or not. People get very weirded out about death but there IS nothing more common. Maybe “Death salon” sounded too high-falutin’.

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  4. Sheila Moss

    Sounds similar to a grief support group. Talking is one of the best things to do for grief. Sorry it didn’t work out for you. They should have broken down into several groups and the moderator could have moved from group to group. Honestly, I think a grief support group saved my life when my husband died. I was unable to find one when my daughter died and ended up going to a counselor. In the support group I went to, everyone had lost a loved one. Anyone else, such as a minister wanting to learn about grief, was introduced and we were asked if anyone minded them sitting in. It is very hard for grieving people in our culture as you feel no one wants to hear about your pain.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I’m glad you’ve had good experiences with groups, but this was not a grief support group nor was I looking for one. The Death Cafe is a fairly new concept although the website says they’ve held over 3,000 all over the world. It is more to talk about the concept of your own death. I agree with what you’re saying about people not wanting to hear about someone’s grief; I believe people get burnt out and want the mourner to “get over it” and “move on” much faster than is possible.

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