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….

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.

David Wagoner, from Collected Poems 1956-1976

Don’t we all long for the sense of place that David Wagoner’s poem describes?  A place where you belong, that reinforces your sense of being “right sized” and in tune with your surroundings?  

That is what I do not have….

Last December, I discovered that my friend Jane was leaving her condo overlooking a small lake just outside Minneapolis.  She sold all the carefully curated furniture (including a fireplace that she had recently installed) and moved to a house in Florida with her new-ish partner Dave.  Boom. A Minnesota native, Jane was not much of a traveler and had season tickets to every theater, orchestra, chamber music or other event in the arts-rich community in the Twin Cities.  In other words, this was not an expected next chapter in her retirement story. At least I didn’t expect it.

Then yesterday, I chatted with Susan, who confided that the 9 weeks she and Bob spend in Puerto Vallarta were just too long – ‘I feel so disconnected – Bob loves it, and would stay longer.  We compromised so that next year we will stay for 6 weeks and come back for a few. Maybe go away again for a couple of weeks on a road trip with the dog to see the kids.’ Disconnected in Mexico…..but looking forward to long summer weeks in their remote and rather primitive cabin in Northern Minnesota – Susan’s “happy place”.

Another couple, long-time Minnesotans, recently moved back into their house, remodeled to suit the vision they had when buying it decades ago.  It sits on a large city corner lot, where they are responsible for shoveling two long stretches of sidewalk. Even when we visit them in the glory of early fall, the house’s steep front entry invokes fears of slipping – and I fast forward to hospitals stuffed with elderly people with pneumonia and broken hips.  But for our friends, an adventuresome trip or two a year in a warmer continent (including lots of hiking), is enough. They never seriously discussed any other options than the major remodel….

What about Sue, who lives in a spectacular three-story mountain home in Colorado, but whose husband is tired of plowing the driveway and dreams of a tripped out Mercedes Sprinter and a couple of years on the road while they are still in great health? (Wait!  Even though they have no children, the dogs are still young…and where will they all live when life on the road gets old?)

As Joe Strummer and Mick Jones put it in The Clash’s famous lyrics:

Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know…

We and our friends are all vigorous in our mid-60s to mid-70s. Not wealthy, but also not strapped.  We can do almost anything we want to — but not everything (and long ago redefined our fantasies to fit our budgets).  Blessed with the freedom to move or be “snowbirds” who fly away in the winter, we all have different stories that dance around the question of where and how to live once we are not tied to a job.   

Although I still have a year to work part-time, Dan and I have off-and-on been grappling where we want to be forever (or what seems that way). The dilemma of moving-or-staying may seem particularly acute for Minnesotans who, although a tough bunch, are mostly willing to admit that winter is challenging.  We love Minneapolis – the arts, friends, lakes within walking distance, good government, and fun restaurants on every corner – it is truly glorious seven or eight months of each year. But, as we say, there are two seasons: winter and road repair. (A local ice cream, Nicollet Pot Hole, memorializes the tire-busting crevasses that emerge every year after the incessant freeze-thaw of hard winters.)  

The question of staying or going is only partially a byproduct of weather.  We are living out the consequences of the tendency of better educated and more affluent Americans to wander.  Like many of our friends, Dan and I lack real roots. Our parents lived far from where they were born; we moved away from our parents.  My daughters and grandchildren live in Massachusetts and Colorado; Dan’s closest relatives are in Nebraska and New York. Easy enough to get to for planned visits, but not for Sunday brunch or occasional babysitting.  We have no role models (except Dan’s mother, who lived by herself and bought a new car at 92) and worry about creating mid-life drama for our loved ones if we age-in-place. We have vicariously experienced how frequent plane flights to deal with emergencies take an emotional and financial toll on friends in their 60s who are caring for parents in their 80s who live far away.  There is always an independent retirement community with affiliated health care. I AM NOT READY FOR THAT – I don’t want to live in an age-ghetto.  We will think about it again when I am 80!

That leaves us with the explicit or implied dilemmas faced by my friends.  Move to New Mexico, which is cheap-ish and has all four seasons, but requires starting over with friendships and community?  Split time between Boston-Denver-Minneapolis (none of which is a winter paradise), but feel a bit disconnected everywhere? Spend a few weeks away from deep winter (while postponing the issue)?  We have been through all of the options and none fits perfectly.  

Dreaming about alternative life styles is a playful “imagine a different future” activity when you are 25-35-45.  Now, we want to live each day to its fullest, and evaluating the many patterns of staying-going feels like a waste of time.  Why can’t a place just speak to me and tell me where to get off? Like a merry-go-round, the scenery changes and then I realize that I have been here before….