In Tuscon, Arizona, a crowd is gathering.
Dozens of men and women from every age group, some with dogs in tow, are converging on the Monterey Court Café and Galleries to talk about one thing: death.
The “Friendly and Fearless Death Café” has met eight times before, but this is the group’s largest turnout ever.
If the name ‘Death Café’ gives you pause, don’t worry, the phenomenon of people gathering together to discuss human mortality is a recent addition to the American cultural rhetoric. “The idea appeals to me because safe and relaxed space to talk about death and dying are fairly non-existent in our western culture,” says Kristine Bentz creator of the Friendly and Fearless group and a certified life-cycle celebrant. “As a cultural taboo, we either deny death altogether, or keep the topic stuffed in some breathless, compressed chamber of our beings.”
The Death Café model has distinctly foreign roots. In many European countries, getting together to expound on the scholarly aspects of philosophy, science and other intellectual pursuits is a popular pastime.
In 2004, Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist, introduced his own spin on this tradition, creating the first ever “café mortel”—a meeting for people who wanted to explore the issues of death and dying. The idea caught on, and Death Café gatherings began taking place across Switzerland, France and the United Kingdom (U.K.).
Jon Underwood, the man responsible for bringing the first Death Café to the U.K. created a website with guidelines and instructions for people who were interested in hosting their own gatherings.
Underwood refers to the movement as a “social franchise,” meaning that those who want to host gatherings under the Death Café name can do so, provided they stick to certain guidelines, including offering their meetings free of charge and never allowing discussions to become focused on trying to convince someone to think in a certain way.
Almost 100 official Death Café meetings have been held around the world, to date. Activities range from simple discussions about end-of-life care decisions, to taking a “Death Anxiety Quiz,” to watching a movie about death and then talking about it afterwards.
Food is always served. Underwood’s sample menu includes drinks such as fair trade coffee and tea, as well as elderflower cordial. For food, he suggests mozzarella, tomato and pesto sandwiches, and sticky date cake.
Tackling a taboo together
Death is such a sensitive issue; it would seem that talking about the topic with strangers could prove difficult. But Bentz says the opposite is often true, “Some people have never had conversations about death before. Some find ease in talking with strangers rather than loved ones.”
While everyone is welcome at a Death Café, the gatherings are not for everyone. Bentz emphasizes the difference between the meetings she hosts and traditional grief and bereavement support groups, saying that Death Cafes weren’t really designed for people in the “white-hot” stages of grieving a loved one’s recent death. The gatherings were created to consider death and dying from a distance, examining difficult issues from a more meta-physical level.
The benefits that one can derive from participating in a Death Café are as varied and unique as the individual participants themselves. “If a person comes in with a willingness to listen and share with others, without the expectation of leaving with a certain outcome, they may find tremendous benefit in having a safe conversation about where they find themselves,” says Bentz.
What do you think of the Death Café concept? Could you openly discuss death and dying with a group of strangers?
Grab a Drink, Take a Seat and Let’s Talk About Death originally appeared on AgingCare.com.
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