ALBANY — The fear of death is everywhere in our society. Some people are so afraid of dying, they forget to live.
Even talking about death — wills, funeral arrangements, burial plots or cremation plans — is often shrugged off until the last minute, sometimes leaving grieving family members with more of a task than they bargained for.
The hesitation to talk about death is everywhere. But when we think about it, death is inevitable. It will happen to all of us, whether we like it or not. We’ve all experienced death in our lives, whether it be a family member, friend, pet or even a dream.
So, why is death such a taboo topic? Why not just talk about it?
That’s where Death Cafe comes in.
Death Cafe is a global movement where strangers sit down together, whether in person or virtually, eat cake, drink tea and talk about death. No filler, no dancing around the subject; they just talk about their experiences and ponder questions about the next phase of life’s cycle.
The objective of Death Cafe is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” We only have so many years on this planet, so why waste those fearing something that will happen, but nobody is sure when?
“The biggest thing about Death Cafe is it’s not a support group or bereavement group,” said Kate Murray, one of the Albany hosts of the local movement, said. “This is a place for people to talk about their experiences and be able to voice things without an agenda, objective or theme.”
Death Cafes are simple. Crowds of between 12 and 30 people typically attend, where hosts will have attendees break into smaller subgroups, each hosting at least one experienced cafe member. From there, attendees are free to discuss for the majority of the session. For the last 15 minutes, the group reconvenes as a whole and members recap what the group talked about. Sometimes it’s more broad topics, while others, people will recap their own experiences with death. For now, the group has been virtual due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the group’s format is normally in-person meetings.
Murray has been hosting Death Cafes for three years. As a hospice volunteer for over 20 years, she’s intimately familiar with all things death and the end of life processes people often embark on. She first found out about the groups through her volunteer spot and it immediately peaked her interest.
Murray’s parents died when she was a teenager. Because of her close experiences with death, she’s always been one to talk about it and ponder. While her siblings aren’t necessarily as forthcoming about it as she is, she soon realized going to these gatherings was allowing her to broach topics that she couldn’t with other people in her life.
“I had been to a couple when the host of the one I was attending announced she was moving away and needed someone to take over the cafe,” Murray said. “The host knew me because we both traveled in similar circles in the hospice world.
“She basically cornered me and another member and asked us to keep it going,” Murray continued. “Come to find out, the other member was a friend of Lizzy Miles, who was the first person to host a Death Cafe in the United States.”
Murray and her friend met with Miles via video chat, where Miles walked them through the process of holding a Death Cafe. What makes Death Cafe so special is despite its very open-ended structure, the guidelines to host a gathering are strict. Hosts cannot charge for admission, there cannot be any themes and there cannot be any money collected. Also, only official Death Cafe events can be advertised on the Death Cafe website; Murray said she once had a speaker coming whose topics were pretty close to the group’s purpose, but because having the speaker was not compliant with the rules, the post on the website was removed.
“We always hear about how positive of an experience people have when they attend,” Murray said. “One of our hosts is an anthropology major and had her students attend for class. She said their finals all came back with emphasis on how much they enjoyed the experience. Some even hosted their own cafes, which was really cool to see.”
Murray said her time involved with Death Cafe has helped her become more of who she is, especially since her parents’ deaths shaped so much of her life.
“These conversations remind me that we only have so many moments in our lives,” Murray concluded, “and I try to live each moment as hard as I can because today could be it.”
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