Tea and Cake at the Death Cafe

Death is the last taboo in our society, so who better to discuss it with than a roomful of total strangers

It takes a lot to get me out of the house on a Sunday afternoon. Sundays are for reading the papers, organizing my desk, cooking, watching TV or taking a nap. I don't like to be scheduled on a Sunday, to the point where even making plans to go out to a movie can seem constricting.

Yet on a recent Sunday, I found myself driving two towns away for an afternoon gathering with total strangers. I had been looking forward to the outing all week, from the moment I read the advertisement: Death Café—A group-directed discussion to explore death and how to make the most of our (finite) lives.

There was something about the ad that intrigued me, and I quickly jumped online to find out more. I learned that the idea of a Death Café took root in 2011, when Jon Underwood and his psychotherapist mother Sue Barsky Reid hosted the first meeting at their East London home. From there a movement spread to the United States, Europe, Australia and beyond; according to the official website, Death Cafés are now hosted in 42 countries.

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Anyone can host their own Death Café, provided they follow a few simple rules. The café is a place for open discussion with no agenda, objectives or themes, and it is not a grief support group. Cafés are offered in an accessible, respectful and confidential space, do not intend to lead participants to any conclusion, product or course of action, are free and, lastly, must offer cake.

This final point was underscored when I arrived at the wellness center in a historic building in rural Vermont. Our small group took our seats in mismatched chairs that had been placed in a circle around a wooden coffee table, on which sat a tray laden with a ceramic teapot, disparate cups and a large lemon cake. The facilitator, Susan* introduced herself as a hospice nurse who had been a midwife for 20 years and, in a soothing voice, explained the concept of the Death Café, and lightheartedly referenced the lemon cake, adding that it was a requirement. This produced nervous chuckles from the half dozen of us assembled, and broke the proverbial ice.

As we nursed hot cups of tea, Susan invited us to go around the circle, introduce ourselves and say a little about why we were there. The other participants were middle-aged women like me—except for an older man whom I recognized from town, who revealed that he made pine coffins for a living. Up until that moment, I hadn't thought to articulate why I was there, and I'm still not certain I fully understand what propelled me to give up my lazy Sunday to talk about a subject I usually avoid, with people I didn't know.

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One of the first ideas broached was that death is the last taboo in our society and a few participants gave personal accounts of trying to discuss the subject with close friends or family, only to be politely ignored or silenced. Some in the group were processing the death of a loved one, but they weren't there for grief support; they were there to express their ideas without being stifled because the subject made others uncomfortable.

"I've always been afraid of death," I began when it was my turn. "I guess I'm here because I don't want to be so afraid, and the idea of a death café piqued my curiosity."

Inwardly, perhaps I was hoping that someone would be able to assuage my fear. Death was a problem to be solved, and if I did the research and surrounded myself with the right people, I could arrive at an answer. Poof. No more fear.

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Of course, the questions of life and death are not finite, but eternal, and this theme quickly took shape among our small group. We all took turns expressing our ideas, usually in quiet voices. The atmosphere was supportive and respectful; there were no right or wrong answers. Indeed, there were no right or wrong questions.

About 30 minutes into the 90-minute meeting, three young women arrived. They apologized for their tardiness; they had driven from a nearby college where they are students. Once settled, two of the girls explained that they were there because they were doing a thesis on death. The third told us through tears that her father was dying of a terminal illness, and her contemporaries evaded her attempts to discuss her feelings about it. The three young women changed the group dynamic. They breathed vitality and life into our discussion about death.

I drove home from the meeting feeling upbeat and invigorated; two words I would never have dreamed I'd associate with death. But the very act of talking openly about a subject most of us take great pains to avoid had the effect of opening a window in a stuffy room.

So, this past Sunday, I again drove into the sleepy Vermont town and took my seat in the circle. There were familiar faces and a few new ones. Susan mentioned that the college students had written to her saying they had attended the previous café with the idea that death was a question to be answered. Instead, they found themselves pondering if we need to understand or fathom death at all. "It's just there," they had written.

Perhaps the women are able to set the question aside because of their youth. They have their entire lives ahead of them, where the rest of our group are more than halfway through. Or maybe the idea that we don't need to fathom the unfathomable can provide relief to those of us intent on approaching life's ultimate and most profound question as a Rubik's cube to be solved.

And perhaps it is both. Before we closed the meeting, we settled on a few ideas to begin our next session, and I made my way home feeling stimulated and looking forward to the questions to come, even though I know there will be no certain answers.

*Susan is a pseudonym to protect the facilitator's privacy.