Death Cafe: Talk about dying and eat cake, too

02/22/2014 8:56 PM

08/08/2014 10:22 AM

As Chet Baker’s “Songs for Lovers” plays softly in the background, adults sip chai tea and nibble on homemade lemon bars at Art du Jour, an art gallery and education space in downtown Santa Cruz, Calif. It’s a bright and cozy setting, from the wildflower arrangements to the warmth of the wood-burning oven.

It’s the perfect place for these 30 strangers to talk about death and dying.

“When I’m ready to go, I know what to do,” says Jack Selk, 92, standing up to address the crowd, his eyes wide and intense. “My body will go to Stanford, and I’ll be with my wife again. I’m not scared.”

However, many of us are. While death is inevitable, discussions about it are often taboo in American culture. We spend so much of our time chasing youth that when death approaches, too few of us have practical plans for it, not to mention spiritual ease.

To help begin those conversations comes a new concept in an unlikely phrase: the Death Cafe. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Death Cafes originated in the country where the hospice movement began, England. When the mother-son team of Sue Barsky Reid and Jon Underwood hosted the first cafe in London, the idea was not to provide grief counseling or support, but to begin informal discussion groups to help ease the anxiety around death and dying.

Since then, more than 3,000 people around the world have participated in 460 Death Cafes. Each is as different as the community it’s held in. Depending on the host and what the attendees bring to the discussion, you may learn about green burials or home funerals; Buddhist interpretations of death; how to fill out an advanced health care directive, or, as Selk pointed out in Santa Cruz, die on your own terms using a $25 toy-store helium tank.

Questions one might hear asked include, “What’s an estate planner?” and “Have you ever watched someone die?” or “Do you believe there’s an afterlife?”

By creating a safe, sanctioned place to share our thoughts, we can demystify dying and make it easier to face, says Shelley Adler, a University of California-San Francisco medical anthropologist who held the first San Francisco Death Cafe this past spring. On Saturday, Adler will hold her third discussion at the guesthouse of the Zen Hospice Project, where she is director of education.

“Bundt cake makes everything easier,” jokes Adler, who opens every Death Cafe talking about how uncomfortable many are with the conversation. “We have more than 100 euphemisms for it. The end. Pass away. Kick the bucket. It’s not that we want to avoid it, necessarily. It’s everywhere, from zombie movies to video games. But we were desperately in need of a platform. And, when you face it, you suddenly feel unloaded. It’s not as scary.”

It wasn’t fear but curiosity about who would show up that brought Sausalito, Calif.’s Frank Hatch, a 59-year-old Buddhist and former whitewater river guide to San Francisco Death Cafe (educated adults 50 and older, with a smattering of 20-and 30-somethings, he says).

Hatch, who is living with HIV and stage 4 cancer, has studied the unknown with a Buddhist teacher for years and says he believes death is the end of this life, not everything. “When you die, you’re essentially waking up in a dream but with no body to ground you,” he says.

When Adler arranged her attendees into small groups, she asked them to contemplate this: If you could ask a dead loved one something, what would it be? One person said, “Does it hurt?” Another said, “Does suffering end?”

But not Hatch.

“I’m a cynic,” he says. “I asked if I needed to bring a sweater.”

The tone was a bit more somber at the first Death Cafe Oakland, which took place this past fall at Chapel of the Chimes, a crematory and columbarium. Life coach Bill Palmer facilitated a discussion with a dozen people seated around a table inside a conference room talking about everything from dementia to near-death experiences.

“There’s an incredible diversity of concern about death,” says Palmer, who limits attendance to 15 people to foster intimacy. “Some people come in, and all they want to know is how to get a living will. Others are young and actively grieving the loss of someone close to them. It’s a rich atmosphere, and everyone is supportive of total strangers. The irony is that it’s also life-affirming. What we all seem to come back to is, ‘If I know I’m going to die, how can I live my life to the fullest now?’”

That’s the ultimate mission of Death Cafe, says Underwood, via e-mail from London.

“I believe that engaging and working with death has a massive part to play in building a better world,” he explains. “Our main innovation has been to try and eliminate the power imbalance between those who deal with death professionally and the rest of us. At a Death Cafe, no one has answers for others. It’s more a chance to find your own.”

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