The Death Cafe: Step Right In


By Matt Perry

Step inside. Grab something warm to drink. Have some cake.

Today, we talk about death.

There is perhaps no topic in American culture more taboo. We avoid it. We fear it. And it may even underlie one of our last remaining prejudices: ageism.

The international Death Cafe movement parallels similar cultural shifts to explore a topic many consider integral to life itself: without embracing death, they say, how can we truly live?

Since their American introduction in 2012, Death Cafes are sprouting up around the state that allow Californians the opportunity to discuss death openly, courageously and compassionately.

“People come and feel safe because there’s finally a place where they can talk about death,” says Betsy Trapasso, an end-of-life guide who has hosted the Los Angeles Death Cafe for the past three years – the oldest Death Café in L.A.. “People are so afraid and don’t talk about it.”

“Everybody leaves a little less anxious, a little less fearful, a little more at peace,” says Harvey Schwartz, who has co-hosted nine Death Cafes in San Francisco in the past year.

The first “café mortel” in Paris in 2004 was created by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. The movement has now spread to 33 countries including the USA, where they’re offered in nearly every state. Worldwide, there are about 100 Death Cafes each month.

The format is simple. Find a comfortable meeting space. Offer hot drinks and food to foster community. Announce that the Death Cafe isn’t a bereavement group, but instead a place to discuss death — worries, beliefs, fears, plans, even desires: “Things they’re never allowed to talk about, or never thought they’d want to talk about,” says Schwartz.

Just discussing death can be a rebellious act. One Death Cafe host put it this way.

“Especially in America, if you die, you’ve failed,” says Karen Van Dyke, who launched the now-blossoming Death Café movement in San Diego.

The book — and now documentary — Being Mortal by famed medical writer Atul Gawande explores the ceaseless desire of physicians to cure and save instead of accept and surrender. Today, more patients are foregoing invasive treatments to live out their final days in peace and explore divine connections instead of scientific cures.

“All these useless and painful and debilitating medical measures are used on people in the end of their life,” says Susan Jordan, who has co-hosted several Death Cafes in Joshua Tree. “We’re not just talking about 40 year-olds but 80 or 90.”

“They don’t die as authors of their own mortality,” says Jack Fong, who is currently writing a book on the Death Café movement in America. “Dying need not be about lawyers and funerals and burial costs.”

Fong, who grew up in Thailand, says that country’s Buddhist culture evoked a “very intimate acknowledgment of dying.”

In America, his experience has proved vastly different.

The final few months of his brother-in-law’s life were filled with excruciating pain before he eventually died of lung cancer last year.

“It was a harrowing experience because he was not in control,” says Fong, associate professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona. “Every order he had came from his doctor and oncology team.”

Jordan lost her mother while on an extended camping trip and missed the funeral. She was disoriented for years afterwards.

“It took me forever to stop wanting to pick up the phone or write to her because I didn’t have the ceremony.”

Van Dyke says the public’s cultural fear of death is really about something else.

“They’re not death-phobic,” says Van Dyke. “They’re uneducated.”

Van Dyke first learned of Death Cafes when she attended one in Marin County.

“It was like a lightening bolt struck me.”

She has since left an executive position at Bank of America to launch Senior Care By Design which helps families navigate their way through the aging and dying processes.

Van Dyke recalls her sister’s death four years ago when funeral parlor employees came to whisk her away.

“We’re not ready,” she told them. “You need to stay outside.”

For the next couple of hours, Van Dyke and her two nieces dressed her sister in pajamas, brushed her hair, and prayed.

“When those men in black coats arrive, it’s swept under the carpet and it’s done,” says Van Dyke. “It’s like you no longer existed. It’s insane.”

Several Death Café hosts cite the critical nature of death as an intimate part of the human experience when life span was shorter and babies more frequently died during childbirth.

“We (all) would have had the experience of death in our lives way before the age of 50,” says Van Dyke. “And that’s all gone away.”

The Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco – a six-bed residential care facility – has re-named its meetings from Death Cafes to Open Death Conversations, holding them immediately below the residents’ rooms.

“Right above our heads are people who are close to their own deaths,” says Roy Remer, who hosts the bi-monthly meetings. “You really can’t turn away from the reality that death is happening all around all the time.”

Maria Carter attended five Death Cafes in San Diego that helped her come to grips with the death of her younger brother at age 12.

“Everything about death terrified me,” says Carter. “I got so much out of them that I continued on and then started hosting them myself.”

Since then, Carter has created a living trust and talked to her children about her wishes following her death.

“We had a great conversation with them,” she says. “That’s what I think Death Cafe does. It takes the sting out of it.”

Schwartz, a psychologist in San Francisco, says the grieving process is essential to emotional health.

“There are a lot of direct and indirect problems by not allowing the full immersion in the experience,” he says, including emotional denial, problems with intimacy, even addiction.

Jordan says attendees lost loved ones in the year following their attendance at a Death Cafe and were therefore more equipped to manage the loss.

“They handled it much better because of the Death Cafe.”

“I hold my Death Cafes all over LA County so that I can reach people from different cultures, classes, races, ethnicities and religions,” says Trapasso. “I like to hold my cafes in different people’s homes each time because it feels more intimate.”

The San Francisco Death Café movement has spawned a series of lectures and movies at the San Francisco Public Library called We’re All Terminal: Living With Death and Dying.”

“It’s been really successful,” says Jim Van Buskirk, who curates the series. “People are absolutely hungry to meet in a safe place and talk about this topic.”

“Dying is a very personal, sacred act,” says Fong. “People are reaching across countries and cultures. Everyone is trapped in their identity politics. Death Cafe obliterates that. It strips everyone of their pretentiousness.”

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