Death is an uncomfortable subject for many people. The way we die is one of the most important conversations Americans are not having. But during the last five years, a movement to break the silence has been growing.
Death Cafes and Death Over Dinner events have attracted thousands of people around the world. These are group conversations about death held in discussion circles or around the dinner table— often with total strangers.
Death goes public
The Jewish Community Center of the East Bay held its first Death Over Dinner last November in Berkeley, with 14 invited guests. Dinner began with glasses of fine wine and a sumptuous meal of salmon, tofu, lasagna with butternut squash, and lentil salad, followed by dessert and coffee.
"Food brings people together," said Amy Tobin, chief executive officer with the JCC East Bay, who led the discussion at one of the two tables. The wine and the meal created a relaxing atmosphere that helped the dinner guests open up and unwind.
"It was like an unlocking," said Tobin, "People were talking about their experiences very openly. They were talking about loss, grief, and fear. And that's a relief —there's a kind of catharsis in letting that stuff out." She added, "There was also something kind of amazing about strangers very quickly becoming so compassionate and supportive of each other."
Several guests shared memories of parents and grandparents they had lost. Some shed tears and expressed regrets about not having had end-of-life conversations with family members and friends before or immediately after the deaths of their loved ones.
"I never visited her," said Abby, one of the dinner guests talking about her deceased grandmother (most participants chose not to share their last names). "I didn't go to her funeral. This is just the way my family treats death," she added.
"One of the greatest losses is I can't thank her, that I can't go 'oh my God, look what you did for me'," said Renee, another dinner guest talking about her mother.
"This is a conversation that the entire country needs to be having," says Michael Hebb, the creator of the national campaign "Let's Have Dinner And Talk About Death." Hebb hosted his first death over dinner in San Francisco five years ago. Hebb estimates that since 2013, over 100,000 death over dinners have been held in 30 countries.
Death Cafes come ot the Bay Area
Death Cafes are similar to death over dinner—forums hosting open-ended conversations about death, but less formal. The first Death Café started in Paris in 2004, and the movement has now spread to 33 countries. Death Cafes came to the U.S. in 2012 and several have taken place in the Bay Area.
Jim Van Buskirk started a monthly Death Café in San Francisco with Harvey Schwartz and Danielle Brandon two years ago. The event is open to all; Van Buskirk says around twenty people usually attend, most of them strangers to each other. They sit in a circle, sipping tea and eating cookies and fruit.
Van Buskirk and Schwartz explain the guidelines at the start of the two-hour meeting. The Death Café is not a bereavement group, but more like a forum open to any discussion related to death.
"It's like a Quaker meeting," said Van Buskirk, "Whoever wants to dive in and say 'my cat died two years ago and I can't stop thinking about it' or 'I'm trying to deal with the clutter left by my recently deceased parents.' So it's all over the map and very unpredictable."
The stories can be serious and funny in turns. The conversations are free-wheeling and can become deeply philosophical. What is death? Is there an afterlife? What about reincarnation? Above all, death cafes are an outlet for people to speak about unmentionable subjects. It's a safe space for people to speak freely in confidence.
Glenn, who was attending his first Death Café asked the group "where were you thirty years ago when I needed you?" He said he experienced many deaths in his family at a young age and had no one to talk to. As a young man, he was confused, angry, and full of emotional pain.
"It's cathartic to get things off your chest," said Glenn, "I think hearing other peoples' stories put things into perspective." He adds, "Maybe it's something you don't need to be angry about. It might have made death seem almost natural, especially when you see people approaching it with such humility. It doesn't have to be a shocking upheaval."
By hosting the monthly death cafes, Van Buskirk and his colleagues hope that death will become demystified and less scary. Because fear of death is so great, most Americans are unprepared for the end of life. Although 75 percent of people polled want to die in their homes, only 25 percent actually do. "Because people are so resistant to writing their wills or working on their advance care directive," said Van Buskirk, "because they're afraid that if they have all their documents in order, that it's going to invite the grim reaper. The more we talk about it and the more we incorporate it into our lives, the better off we'll be."
Re:Imagine End of Life
The growing public interest in death led to last year’s Re:Imagine End Of Life, a week-long festival in the Bay Area sponsored by the local design firm IDEO. (the festival was sponsored by KALW.) In 2013, “redesigning death” became one of IDEO's priority areas—how to promote conversations about living and dying through art and design.
"We thought, 'could we tap into the local conversations and the local activity that's already happening around this topic?'" said Shoshana Berger, IDEO's editorial director, "Death over Dinners, Death Cafes, death podcasts—all of that was already happening. So IDEO acted as something of a convener—gathering everyone together for one week to have a local, civic conversation about death."
The Re:Imagine festival hosted panel discussions, music, poetry, storytelling, and art installations. Berger said over 2,000 people attended the event. "We were shocked by the numbers," she said, "It was sold-out crowds and standing room-only throughout the week. I was really astonished by how eager people were to come and talk about death."
The local Death Café movement has led to a series of lectures and movies at the San Francisco Public Library called "We're Terminal: Living With Death And Dying." Van Buskirk curates this series and says greater numbers of people are coming to the realization that overcoming their fears of death can help them live more fully in the present.
"What the Death Cafe does is remind everybody we may not have tomorrow," said Van Buskirk, "So if you’re going to do something, do it today. If you want to tell somebody ‘I love you’ or resolve a conflict, now is the time.”
Public conversations and festivals around death would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. Plans are underway for a second Re:Imagine festival this fall. The hosts and organizers of Death Cafes and Death Over Dinners believe they have now paved the way for thousands of open, honest conversations about the end of life.
"Death Goes Public" is part of the End of Life Radio project, a series of reports on care at the end of the life. For the entire series go to http://endofliferadio.org