Death Café: Food for the Soul
Nov 03, 2015 05:33PM
By Juliette Jones
“In the depths of winter, I finally learned there is in me an invincible summer.”
– Albert Camus
In the Northern Hemisphere, the month of November sits on an edge between autumn and winter. The leaves have passed through verdant summer days, waved colorful autumn goodbyes, and fallen from the trees to rest upon the firmament. As the days grow shorter, lower temperatures and reduced periods of sunlight bring forth internal changes in mood and behavior. Several activities come to a close and, in a sense, life begins to shut down. Nothing in nature escapes transformation.
The Anglo Saxons referred to November as the “blood month,” possibly because this is when they slaughtered animals to fortify winter food supplies. By this time, crops have already been harvested, and we prepare to celebrate the traditional feast of Thanksgiving. While Thanksgiving is the holiday most associated with November, this month also hosts a series of other days set aside to commemorate themes of death and decline in health or relationships. In fact, November is observed as National Hospice and Palliative Care Month.
“In our Western culture, although death has come out of the closet, it is still not openly experienced or discussed. Allowing dying to be so intensely present enriches both the preciousness of each moment and our detachment from it.”
– Ram Dass
During the early ‘90s, when I began my career with hospice, the phenomenon of death had not yet come far out of the closet in the American mainstream. I felt awkward responding to questions at social gatherings about what I did for a living. When people discovered I worked with hospice, facial expressions dropped and became somber. Sometimes there would be a comment extolling the virtue of such a career choice, but just as often, others’ comments revealed their anxiety: “How can you go to work and see that every day?” Either way, the conversation was short lived. People, in general, expressed discomfort during conversations that pointed toward the reality of death and dying.
However, throughout the past two decades, attitudes have become somewhat different. These days, when I mention my involvement with hospice, people often want to talk about their experiences with the death of loved ones, particularly if hospice has been involved. Most speak positively about their hospice experience. Many continue to feel a need to discuss their feelings, as well as the many considerations surrounding death and dying.
Hospices and funeral homes regularly provide grief support groups for the bereaved, and these groups definitely have their place. But, I have long thought that our culture is calling for something different than what medical models, funeral homes or church groups provide―a place completely independent of profit motive or dogma (medical, religious or otherwise), where the universal common denominator of death gives rise to a special and unique context of authenticity. In this type of setting, the community would discover freedom to speak their deepest thoughts and feelings, to voice divergent opinions, to and ask questions about death and dying that might not come forth in a conventional atmosphere. This community is often difficult to find in our society.
“Only think about death when you are happy.”
– Sogyal Rinpoche
When I stumbled upon the phenomenon of Death Café, I was intrigued. What is a Death Café? Initially, the two words seem to clash. A café is generally considered a place to eat and socialize―associated with light fare, not with “dying” per se. Yet, when you think about it, people are more inclined to loosen up and talk freely about issues such as death or bereavement in a nurturing, hospitable setting where the comfort of food and drink is available, and nothing is demanded in return.
“It is crucial to be mindful of death, to contemplate that you will not remain in this life.”
– Dalai Llama
Death as a Reminder to Live Fully
At a Death Café, people from all walks of life gather in community to accomplish a collective mission (which is the mission of Death Café): To increase awareness of death with the view of helping people make the most of their (finite) lives. There are guidelines, however. “A Death Café is a group-directed discussion with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counseling session. Death Cafés 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. At a Death Café, people (often strangers) gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death.”
Like the modern hospice movement, Death Cafés trace their origins to London, England. Based on the ideas of Bernard Cravatz, this concept was founded in 2011 by Jon Underwood, and the first Death Café was held in his house with his mother, Sue Barsky Reid (a psychotherapist) facilitating. The mother-son duo went on to host Death Cafés in various venues: restaurants, private homes, cemeteries, a Mongolian circular tent and The Royal Festival Hall. Currently, they are working to establish a permanent Death Café site in London.
In 2012, Underwood and Barsky-Reid published a field guide for establishing and facilitating Death Cafes, based around the methodology Barsky-Reid developed. Since that time, groups have spread widely throughout Europe, North America and Australasia, with hundreds of people have working with the originators to host Death Cafes around the world. Death Café is a “social franchise,” meaning that people can host Death Cafés according to the stated guidelines and avail themselves of the movement’s name and website.
Each individual Death Café has a different facilitator and, thus, a distinct personality. Attendees come with diverse experiences and expectations, and no death-related topic is considered taboo. This is a safe space to discuss everything―political, legal, psychosocial, religious and spiritual subjects are all acceptable.
“A man who dies before he dies does not die when he dies.”
– Augustia Santa Clara
Most who attend Death Café do so from a need to deepen awareness, and some to distribute their business cards for various services. Death Cafés will become even more widespread as the population expands and ages. Numbers don’t lie. The growth and the popularity of the Death Cafe demonstrates there are many people who feel the need or have a strong interest in talking about death―not in a morbid way, but to normalize and understand this universal passage.
“Dear friend, please know as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now so you will be.
Prepare yourself to follow me.”
– Anonymous Tombstone Inscription
There are two Death Cafes in Sarasota County. Sarasota Death Café #16 is hosted by Lori Marshall and Mark Sanders. Location: Radiance of Sarasota, 2868 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota. For more information, call 941-312-4349 or email [email protected]. Death Café of Venice is hosted by Pam Schierberg. Location: Frances T. Bourne Jacaranda Library, 4143 Windmere Park Blvd., Venice. Meets the third Saturday of each month at 1:30 p.m. For more information, call 850-512-3151 or email [email protected]. For more information on the Death Café Movement, visit DeathCafe.com.