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What Happens at a Death Café?

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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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Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: 3sb@comcast.net.

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