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Death Cafes: Straight Talk About Life's End

The founder of the first one in the U.S. on why people come

By Richard Chin

In the last couple of years, groups of strangers have been gathering in coffee shops and community meeting rooms around the country to discuss something most people don’t normally want to talk about: death.
These gatherings are called death cafés. They're a sort of salon for people interested in freewheeling forums about everything connected with what Shakespeare called "the undiscovered country."
The concept was pioneered about 10 years ago by a Swiss sociologist, Bernard Crettaz. By 2011, it spread to Great Britain, where a web designer and self-described "death entrepreneur" named Jon Underwood set up the website.
That’s how Lizzy Miles heard about it. On July 19, 2012, the 43-year-old hospice social worker held the first death café in the United States in a meeting room at a Panera sandwich shop near Columbus, Ohio.
Since then, according to Miles, death cafés have sprung up in more than 100 U.S. cities in over 30 states. She continues hosting a death café in her community about once a month.
I interviewed Miles about the movement she helped pioneer:
Next Avenue: Who comes to death cafés?
Miles: I had one death café where I had a 70-year age range between the youngest and the oldest attendee. On average, it’s women in their 50s. It’s more women than men, although I’ve had some events where it was disproportionally male. I have mothers and daughters, and I have siblings, and I have spouses. Friends come together.
What’s the draw?
What’s beautiful about it is: It’s not narrow. You have people who are cancer survivors. You have people who have a loss in their own family. I remember at one of my death cafés, people turned to the 20-year-old and asked her: ‘What do you know about death?’ and she said, ‘I grew up on a farm, and the animals died all the time.’

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I’ve had physicians who have to be the ones to tell families that their loved one has a terminal illness. I’ve had hospice professionals, I’ve had chaplains. Funeral home directors enjoy it. I’ve had people who had near-death experiences.
Do people use the cafés to prepare for death?
I have had people who have never experienced death at all in their families, and they know it’s going to be hard when it happens. I had a husband and wife come who had lost their son to a heroin overdose three months before the death café.
It’s not a counseling session, but I’ve had people who have been suicidal coming to the death café.
Why do people say they come?
When I ask that, I hear reasons that aren’t so complicated. ‘People in my life don’t want to talk about the things I want to talk about’ or ‘I have things on my mind that I want to talk about and I want to hear what other people have to say.’
There’s a myth that people don’t want to talk about death. But there’s this faction of people who do, but they’re surrounded by people who don’t.

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I’ve heard people travel to them.
At a recent one, there was a man who drove three hours, and that’s not unheard of. Hawaii actually just had their first one, and there were people who drove across the island and rented a hotel just to come.
What do people talk about?

There’s no agenda. No ideology. There are other models out there for death education or seminars on doing advanced directives or why you should do funeral planning. That already exists. What does not exist, and why death café resonates, is the open forum. There are new topics every single time — things I’ve never heard people bring up before.
After-death communication seems to be a pretty common thing. People talk about funeral customs, burial versus cremation. People talk about which is worse — losing a loved one suddenly versus a prolonged illness. They have brought up physician-assisted suicide before. They’ve brought up body farms, where they study decay. People talk about writing obituaries. People talk about sky burials [and] taking photographs at funerals — just anything.

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What’s the overall reaction?
No matter where they are emotionally when they walk into the death café, they always walk out happier. It’s so strange to say you can have a pleasurable experience talking about death. But there is a lot of laughter. Occasionally tears. But it’s a very open, honest real conversation that happens.

Richard Chin is a Twin Cities newspaper reporter who has written for publications including the Wall Street Journal, and Stanford Magazine. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and once won the Wisconsin Wife Carrying Championship. Read More
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