Montrose's Death CafeJun 23, 2023 01:50PM ● By Leanne Goebel
Death. We don’t like to talk about it. We usually fight it or try to ignore it. But for as long as we’ve lived, we’ve died. Death is inevitable.
Earlier societies were much better at talking about death. Some of our primitive ancestors believed in life after death, viewing it as nothing more than a change in existence. Some cultures honor the dead through memorials, rituals and stories. The Victorians may have been reluctant to discuss sex, but during a time where disease was widespread and medical care was rudimentary at best, funerals were commonplace. It was only until the 20th century that people started to fear death and viewed discussing it as taboo.
What if we normalized talking about death—even embraced it? What if we gathered with strangers and openly discussed our thoughts, feelings, dreams and nightmares about death over cake and tea? Would it make death any less scary?
Tom Smith, a palliative and end-of-life care coordinator, facilitates quarterly Death Cafés at the Montrose Library, 320 S. Second St. These free discussions are aimed at increasing awareness of topics related to death and dying, and helping people make the most of their finite lives.
Seven people attended the library’s Death Café in April. Participants varied in age and had disparate reasons for being there. One person worked at an animal shelter and mentioned euthanizing animals. Several people knew someone who had recently committed suicide. Another person was a retired nurse. The youngest participant was a death doula.
Everyone spoke freely and shared openly while eating carrot cake and drinking tea in the library’s meeting room. The discussion was peaceful, honest, poignant and ordinary. There was laughter. There were a few tears.
Conversations about death & dying
The linking of death, food and drink comes from Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz’s belief that “nothing marks to community of the living like sharing food and drink.” Based on this idea, Jon Underwood, an English web developer, and Sue Barsky Reid, a gestalt psychotherapist, started the first Death Café in 2011.
Death Café is best described as a dialogue: a conversation with strangers about a topic surrounded by stigma and filled with generational trauma. There are ground rules to follow: be respectful, take turns, no cross-talk or talking over others and no cell phones. Participants must be open to different ideas, as faiths and spiritual beliefs may be different. They also must hold space for those who may have intense emotional experiences.
Death Café is not a grief or therapy group. However, there is no shortage of topics that are discussed.
At the April meeting, the death doula talked about burial options that are environmentally friendly, such as aquamation (cremation using water rather than fire) and options where a person can turn their ashes into compost for a tree.
There was discussion of assisted suicide, which garnered input on how one participant could say goodbye to a friend before they ended their life due to a terminal illness. The group analyzed grief for families with loved ones affected by dementia and Alzheimer’s as they often experience two “deaths”—losing their loved one’s mind, recognition and memories before their physical death.
Participants gained a better understanding of the roles of end-of-life professionals, including how hospice and palliative care keep the dying person comfortable as they navigate the journey from life to death whereas a doctor’s job is to keep one alive as long as possible. Other professionals help a person have a conscious end, guiding them so they become more comfortable with their life ending.
Other topics discussed include near-death experiences, individual wishes and plans for dying, how long you want to be kept alive, and things you’d want your family to know.
Helping us live fully
Today, thousands of Death Cafés exist in 85 countries. Anyone can host a Death Café in any town or city. Resources for starting one are available at DeathCafe.com.
Talking about death is freeing, said Smith, adding that being around so much death helps him live in the moment, unafraid to try things like bungee jumping or skydiving.
As the conversation wound down, it was evident that Death Café was cathartic. When it comes to death, there are choices. Death does not have to be anesthetized. Death can be whatever we choose.