A Place to Chat About Death

in by

Death is in the Zeitgeist. Everyone’s talking about it, or not, as the case may be.

One place to discuss the generally taboo topic is at a Death Cafe, an informal gathering with no specific agenda, objectives or themes.  A discussion group rather than a grief support or counselling session, Death Cafes are run by volunteers and intended – as the movement’s website proclaims – “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

Death, or at least talking about death, can be fun.  The Death Café held monthly at the Potrero Branch, Library is filled with laughter, and features light refreshments, including tea and home-baked cookies. Some people attend monthly; others come once or twice. Their stories are inspiring and energizing, rather than macabre or depressing. And the Café’s demographics defy expectations, with participants ranging from twenty-somethings to octogenarians. Largely, though, attendees consist of Baby Boomers dealing with end of life issues for their parents who are also facing their own mortality.

The first Death Cafe was held by Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz in Neuchatel, Switzerland in 2004, followed by a Paris event in 2010.  In 2011, Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid held a Death Cafe in London.  The social franchise quickly spread across Europe, North America and Australasia; thousands of gatherings have occurred over the last several years.

Among the wide-ranging topics discussed at the cafes are religious and cultural customs, existential fears, burial options, cremation dispersal, home funerals, and living wills. Stories are shared about deathbed experiences and communications with “the other side”.  So many resources emerge during a given two-hour session that the Potrero group has created its own Pinterest page.

A plethora of books investigate death from a variety of perspectives. Atul Gawande’s powerful Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End offers a physician’s perspective; Roz Chast’s hilariously heartbreaking graphic novel Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? idiosyncratically documents her roller coaster experience with her aging parents. Misconceptions about what hospice is, and isn’t, are put to rest by Sheila Himmel and Fran Smith in Changing the Way We Die: Compassionate End-of-Life Care and the Hospice Movement.

Increasingly popular are living funerals, like the one held by Morrie Schwartz, made famous by Mitch Albom in the bestselling book and film adaptation Tuesdays with Morrie.  The film How to Die in Oregon powerfully documents how our neighbors to the north deal with the controversial issue.

Many organizations are developing public programming focusing on death, as evidenced by “Embracing the Journey, an End of Life Resource Fair” held at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco last fall, and an ongoing series at the San Francisco Public Library entitled “We’re All Terminal: Living with Death and Dying.” Stuart Bronstein offers will-writing workshops, from which a prepared participant can exit the free, 90-minute session with a legally binding will, at various SFPL branches. Other local groups dealing with end of life issues include the Bay Area Funeral Consumers Association, Seven Ponds, and Final Passages.

After a quarter-century of advocacy, the California End of Life Option Act, which goes into effect next February, will make California the fifth state to authorize medical aid-in-dying. 

To find a convenient Death Cafe, visit DeathCafe.com. Entering a zip code leads you to the closest meeting, either temporally or geographically, with a prompt to contact the organizer to reserve a space in order to keep groups small. Death Cafes are offered on a not for profit basis, in an accessible, respectful and confidential space, with no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action. Talking about death won’t kill you!