Triptych image: Maureen Selwood, “Ravens,” 2013
I WASN’T SURE WHAT to expect. It was my first Death Café and the etiquette, as far as I knew, was uncharted. I came as I was, with an open mind and a willingness to confront my dwindling vitality. The event was scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m. and held at a Panera in Westerville, a suburb northeast of Columbus, Ohio. It was brisk weather for a night in March but thanks to daylight savings time there was still some light as we arrived.
My friend Meg and I came late, having gone to the wrong Panera at first, so the meeting area was full when we finally made it. On the meeting room doorknob hung a sign, “Death Café,” like the little AA signs they hang on church doors when a meeting is in progress. Meg was as curious as I was about what a roomful of strangers would say to each other about the topic of death. I invited other friends, but only Meg was willing to venture out on a dank, windy night to talk death; another friend accepted, but bailed at the last minute. We wedged ourselves in and joined the discussion at separate tables. Five or six tables held four or five people each, with coffee and cake and rolls of Lifesavers to share amongst ourselves. I felt a bit like Liz Taylor, someone who would be late for my own funeral, but grabbed my seat and jumped in. What I was hoping to achieve by attending I didn’t know — some acceptance of death, perhaps? A conquering of that ever-present dread that kept whispering to me that one day my bones would be dust? I wasn’t sure, but in any case I was ready to talk about The Final Wrap.
The idea of the theme café, locations where like-minded souls could meet to talk specific subjects such as science and philosophy, began in Europe. Now the idea had come to the Americas, thanks to Lizzy Miles, who kick-started the first Death Café in the United States and who had organized this meeting. The topic was our own mortality. I sat with three men who looked to be in their 30s and one woman who was closer to my age, a youngish early 50s. I noticed a flyer on the table with topic suggestions such as “I think death is_______.” and “Before I die I would like to______.” We ignored the guidelines and let our discussion flow naturally. No one hesitated to speak. We had plenty on our minds.
The two hours passed quickly, in the way they tend to, as we nibbled cake, sipped tea, and partook of the ersatz fruit of Lifesavers. We discussed our lives, how we dealt with friends and family who have died, the bitter cocktail of emotions you are left with when a friend commits suicide, and how we might spend our last days if we knew for certain the date of our deaths (put affairs in order, create one last great work of art, party down). At evening’s end I felt strangely refreshed, my mind rallied with forgotten memories of friends gone and former musings put in storage. It felt like a glimpse of the true Wizard of Oz — or at least that the great unknown was nothing to fear. It’s not the dying we have to worry about, I told myself. It’s the living.
Afterward, I spoke with Lizzy Miles, the woman behind the Death Café curtain, about how she came to provide such an outlet for our talk-starved companions.
DAVID BREITHAUPT: When did you start thinking about the Death Café concept and how did you initiate it?
LIZZY MILES: I first learned about the concept in January 2012 when I read a blog post by someone who had attended a Death Café in England. It’s funny because I actually shared my interest in the concept on Google+! That led me to the DeathCafe.com website where I saw that Jon Underwood invited others to become facilitators. I emailed him and then we Skyped several times. I had a lot of questions! He was so helpful and encouraging and gave me the reassurance that I could really get it started.
DB: How has your own attitude towards mortality changed since you’ve become involved with the Death Café?
LM: The death café hasn’t changed my view of my own mortality but it has given me an understanding of the wide variety of viewpoints out there. It has expanded my worldview. It amazes me every time to hear the different topics that people bring forth. You would think that after eight events it might be repetitious, but I am always surprised. I believe it helps my hospice work. The more I know, the more I know that I don’t know.
DB: Did your hospice work inspire you to start the cafés or did your school work point you in this direction?
LM: My interest in the Death Café was inspired by my work in hospice, in part, and partly from my interaction in the public. In my hospice work I have come across many families who were completely unprepared for the thought that their loved one would die. They had never talked about their wishes with their loved ones and often would come to hospice completely overwhelmed by the experience of facing a loved one’s decline. Also, I have found that whenever I tell people that I work in hospice they immediately begin to confide in me and tell me about a loved one who is dying or who has passed. This has happened in the most random of places –– from the poker room in Vegas to a craft store aisle. Sometimes it would be an acquaintance on Google+ or Facebook who would send me a deeply personal story. I realized that most people don’t have a venue to process and share thoughts related to death and dying.
DB: What do you think motivates the average Death Café attendee to come out on a dank, Midwestern, winter night to talk about mortality with a room full of strangers?
LM: The desire to talk and process. Many people who come to the Death Café have some aspect of death and dying on their mind. Either they are thinking of their own mortality or they are thinking of a death experience they have had. People want to share their stories. Also, many people come because they want to hear what others think. I originally thought it might attract a goth type of crowd, but that hasn’t really been the case. There are also attendees who work in the industry in some way and don’t have a venue in their workplace to talk about what they have experienced.
DB: I was surprised by the relative youth of those attending the last café you conducted. Do you think younger people are thinking more about this subject than they used to?
LM: The Death Café seems to attract all ages. In one Death Café I had a 70-year age range between the oldest and youngest attendees. Some of the younger folks have already experienced the death of a sibling, a parent, or grandparent. In general though, most people don’t talk about death in everyday conversation. But that doesn’t mean we don’t think about it. Events in the news affect us all. People do think about death, they just don’t have a place to process their thoughts with others. The Death Café creates that venue. A century ago people were exposed to death more naturally than youth today.
DB: After my mother died, I read a book by CS Lewis called A Grief Observed, about the death of his wife. It helped me through that tough time. Are there any works of literature that can help people grapple with the topic of death?
LM: For those that are dealing with dying, I think many people have found Final Gifts to be helpful. For bereavement, my favorite book is A Time to Grieve because it has short pieces that can be read a bit at a time. I could flip open that book and find just about any page relevant and helpful.
DB: What do you say to someone who might say, “I don’t want to go to a Death Café, that’s morbid!”
LM: I really don’t try to talk anyone in to attending a Death Café that doesn’t want to come, but it is anything but morbid. My survey results have indicated that people find the Death Café experience to be a warm, inviting, safe place to have a conversation. It’s not for everyone. Some people aren’t ready to face the thought of death, which is alright. Sadly, it will just make the death and dying experience or the loss of a loved one harder for them to process when it does happen. It’s easier to think about it in the hypothetical.
DB: You started the first Death Café in this country; how quickly did they spread throughout the country?
LM: It’s hard to quantify how quickly they spread. There were some in the fall, but really this spring has been the explosion of the major cities. I think the media coverage had a lot to do with that. People read about the concept and then wanted to host the Death Cafés in their own cities. Every time there is a big article, I get an influx of inquiries from people who want learn how to host their own events.
DB: What’s next on your agenda? Where do you plan to take the Death Café?
LM: Next on my agenda is to relax. I’m working full-time as a hospice social worker and I need to make sure that I maintain a good work/life balance. I really enjoy the Death Cafés and I will likely continue to host them. I try to be available for questions for other facilitators, so I suppose you could say that my next step is to continue to provide guidance and support for new facilitators. But the Death Café is not “mine” to take anywhere. It is a movement that has taken on a life of its own.