What Is A Death Café – And Who Would Want To Go Anyway?

A few weeks ago, Dan and I went to a Death Café – it was on a whim, because I saw it in a Barnes and Noble e-mail that I was in the process of deleting.  Also because I have been trying to live into Julia Cameron’s advice to have an artist’s date every week.  Planning anything a week ahead when I am trying to spend as much time as possible with Opal (our 20 month-old granddaughter) seems almost impossible.  She-Who-Rules has not figured out that adults are happier when the children in their lives have a regular nap schedule…in any case, why not go on the spur of the moment?

photo credit: Death Cafe

We had no idea what to expect, but showed up along with eight other people at the “Solarium” (a space with lots of windows next to the Pets section) in the back of the Boulder, Colorado B&N. Our volunteer facilitator introduced herself as someone with experience with both hospice and midwifery.  Beginnings and endings, her specialty.  We started with a brief introduction to the Death Café – who knew that this was an international movement, and that all over the globe there were other people participating in discussions about death on a regular basis.  If you don’t believe me, Google it yourself (https://deathcafe.com)– the first thing that pops up is “Welcome to Death” followed by an invitation:  “At a Death Cafe people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.”  Today, as I write this, I could attend one in St Luis Obispo or Quezon City in the Philippines.

How odd – my first thought – how can this be so popular?  Why does the idea of meeting with strangers to talk about death have meaning from Lake Forest, New York to Goteborg, Sweden (oddly, as we entered, I passed by the popular book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson).  So I sat feeling intrigued but somewhat detached, observing the people sitting in the circle with Dan and me with interest.  Across from me were three older women (in other words people roughly my age!) all looking very Boulder.  That means middle class with tiny efforts to be a bit offbeat – a purple streak through gray hair or an embroidered vest.  There was a couple who appeared to be about 50, and next to me a very large man of about the same age, who made it clear that he had come only because he was asked by the facilitator.  A rather sad looking woman in her sixties arrived late, and positioned herself slightly outside the circle, although we made every effort to rearrange the chairs. 

So why had they come?  We began by offering up our reasons, some of which (like mine) were curiosity, others because they had recently experienced a death.  One was still trying to make sense of a loss many years ago of a beloved brother; another because the passing of her sister made her aware that there was no one left in the world who knew her as a child. No one there was ill or recovering from a serious illness.  In fact, we all looked rather vital….

I opened, saying that I was coming from curiosity – wanting to try new things – and because the last year had been full of deaths and skirmishes with death for multiple friends.  By the time we finished with our offerings – what drew us, what our experiences were with death –it felt as if we were part of an intimate circle.  The feeling of instant membership was odd—I can’t think of another time when I have entered a group of strangers and felt so quickly as if I belonged.  Also, the often-noisy Judge in my head – the one that edits what other people are saying while they are just beginning to formulate their thoughts — was surprisingly quiet.  What people talked about silenced The Judge – it was as if the topic of death encouraged a level of intimacy that you would never find in other settings. 

The 50-year old man talked (at great length) about the paradox of watching his brother suffer over several years and the joy of seeing him become increasingly spiritual and at one with his life.  We talked about acceptance – one of my mantras – we talked about the experiences of being present with someone who was dying.  We talked about whether we wanted a death surrounded by loving relatives or whether, in our deepest heart, we wanted to be alone on the journey.  One woman – the only one with any apparent attachment to an image of afterlife – was very positive that she would be reincarnated – and that she would retain a great deal of the knowledge and experience that she already possessed.  No one else seemed to be certain of anything except that the idea that dying filled him or her with awe.  Only Cat, the 50-ish wife of the man whose brother had dies some years ago, said little.

So we were there for well over an hour.  Dan and I left feeling that it had been a remarkable experience.  Why can’t we find this level of connection without having to confront death?  What is it about a Death Café that promotes connections when other conversational opportunities do not?

Photo credit: Death Cafe

Postscript:  I drafted this early last spring when I was in Boulder, Colorado – escaping harsh Minnesota winter for a milder version. Looking back after six months, community seemed to surface from a collective experience that was simultaneously anonymous and intimate.  We were there for remembrance as well as being open about both the wounds and healing that we experienced individually.  If you want to be part of this, you can:  The website says, “People who adopt the model set out in our guide are welcome to set up their own Death Cafes. So far we’ve held Death Cafes in 65 countries.”  I think that I will take them up on the invitation….


…..retirement isn’t an event, nor is it a one-size-fits-all proposition. It’s a process that takes time, especially as we look toward post-career lives that are likely to last as long as our working lives…Whether it is through a new line of work, service, learning, or other meaningful activities, Encore Transitions emphasizes post-career engagement as a foundation for vitality, happiness, and healthy longevity (Encore Transitions Program, University of Minnesota).

To fall from grace is an idiom referring to a loss of status, respect, or prestige (Wikipedia).

The University of Minnesota, where both Karen Rose and Karen Martha worked, is busy developing initiatives to support “the successful transition” of their employees and others in the community to the world after retirement.  As we boomers arrive en masse to a time when we are expected to retire, an emerging cottage industry acknowledges that:  (1) most of us won’t die before we are 80; (2) we are terrified of settling in to a life that consists only of golf or babysitting for our adorable grandchildren; and (3) we, apparently, need to be taught how to retire.

At first, the idea of retirement struck me as simply unthinkable.  I would be like Pablo Picasso, who completed his most massive sculpture—the “Chicago Picasso” —  when he was in his late 80s.  I would continue to become a slightly quieter, but significantly more reflective version of what I had always been.  But then I began to observe what happens to most people – perhaps not Picasso or other artists whose creativity seems to expand with age – but most of us.  We just get a little slower, a little more tired.  Perhaps irritating features of work that we overlooked because we were enthusiastic about most of it begin to annoy us more.  Maybe we began to annoy our colleagues more.  Time to think about leaving before people started to hint that it might be time….

The Reality: I loved the external validation that came with being an “expert” in my work life – someone whose wisdom was sought by younger colleagues and whose insights were considered important on various “strategic planning committee” assignments.  It was not as if I didn’t have a life outside of work – an adorable husband, good friends, two adult children who gratifyingly produced grandchildren who were also lovable.  But, I was reminded of the time when my children were young, and I would be introduced as “Erica and Margit’s mother” – it didn’t feel bad, because I knew that was would follow shortly was “she is a professor at the U”.  If retired and introduced as “Margit’s mother,” it would end there.   Unless I became something else.  A new identity is what the “Encore Transitions” program at the U promised to provide – is that promise a shield from invisibility?

If that doesn’t feel like a fall from grace, I don’t know what else I could call it.  Hang up those academic robes.  Remember that every book you have every written ends up on the publisher’s remainder list at about 10 years after it comes out.  Remember that you haven’t kept in touch with people who were good colleagues but who retired a few years before you.  No office.  No one to fix your computer for free. 

What is at stake? Conventional ambition…a desire for visibility and influence?  An inability to be imaginative about the present, much less the future?   I could get a life coach!  But wait, I am a life coach. Oops.

Parker Palmer (who is not retired…although he is nearly our age) writes about this compellingly in Let Your Life Speak (Jossey-Bass, 2000).  Chapter III of his book is titled “When Way Closes”.  He goes on to say,

As often happens on the spiritual journey, we have arrived at the heart of a paradox:  each time a door closes, the rest of the world opens up.  All we need to do is stop pounding on the door that just closed, turn around – which put the door behind us – and welcome the largeness of life that now lies open to our souls…(p 54)

That is the good news.  But it took Palmer a decade to figure this out.  And he was in his 30s and 40s when he confronted losing his first career and finding something else.  And I just re-read a book that is nearly 20 years old and still selling well.  I probably don’t have a decade to figure it out.  Ok – stop wishing that you were Parker Palmer instead of Karen Rose Seashore. 

The less good news is the rather depressing list of course topics included in the U of Minnesota’s “Encore Transitions” classes.  They do not reflect soul work, but approach the topic of retirement as figuring out how to manage the logistics (money, health care, etc.) and get busy with something that looks a lot like work  — but different in an indefinable way (even less definable when it is posed as designing a third act career….). Many people have raved about this program, so I know that the discomfort I feel is in me…

And I am left with a puzzlement.  How often does retirement feel like a fall from grace?   Consider the sad “retirement party” syndrome, where many people stand up to celebrate who you WERE, and add a few vague phrases about what YOU MIGHT DO.  I think that I should ritually burn my academic gown and hood instead!  Except I found it on the back of a door when I moved to a new office after several years of using the cheap rental robes the university provides for people who don’t have their own.  A kind person left it there.  I added a zipper.  Maybe someone else should have it.  Is that falling into grace in this instance?