Talking about the D word
At these coffee klatches, a subject that is largely taboo is on the agenda.
IT CAN be tough to get a conversation going if you want to talk about the late stages of dementia, your last will and testament or the recent passing of your mother.
“When you’re at a cocktail party and you lead off by saying, ‘What do you think about death?’ it’ll be, ‘C’mon, man, it’s a party! Chill out!’ says Len Belzer, a retired radio host from Manhattan in New York.
Belzer is among a growing number of people around the world who are interested enough in death to gather in small groups in homes, restaurants and churches to talk about it.
The gatherings, known as Death Cafes, provide places where death can be discussed comfortably, without fear of violating taboos or being mocked for bringing up the subject.
Organisers say that there’s no agenda other than getting a conversation started – and that talking about death can help people become more comfortable with it and thereby enrich their lives.
“Most people walking down the street, they’re terrified of death,” says Jane Hughes Gignoux, 83, an author who leads Death Cafe gatherings at her Manhattan apartment. “But if you think of death as part of life and let go of the fear, you think more about living your life well.”
Jon Underwood, who organised the first Death Cafe in London two years ago, says he was inspired by death discussions pioneered by Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist. The first Death Cafe in the United States was held in Columbus, Ohio, last year, and “It’s just kind of snowballed,” he says, estimating nearly 300 Death Cafes have been held in America, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Portugal, Brazil and Singapore.
At a recent two-hour Death Cafe shepherded by Gignoux, six participants, most in their 60s, talked easily over tea and biscotti.
Kathryn Janus, 66, notes that death involves “a lot of ‘why?’ Why did a 12-year-old with leukaemia die? Why did a cat get run over?”
Marjorie Lipari, 68, talks about the death of her twin brother 16 years ago. “What does one do with that kind of hole?” she asks. “It never occurred to me he wouldn’t be with me for my whole life.”
Robb Kushner, 62, discusses the differences between Christian and Jewish funerals he’d been to, noting the open casket at a Methodist wake. Alicia Evans, in her 40s, then tells the tale of a man known to be a bit “scruffy” in life who was nicely tidied up by the embalmer. “He looked so good in the coffin I wanted to give him my number,” she says, cracking up the group.
Other subjects commonly brought up at Death Cafes range from financial planning to suicide. They include cremation, memorial services, loved ones’ last moments and the possibility of an afterlife.
Jane Bissler, incoming president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling, a profes- sionals’ group, says she approves of the Death Cafe concept because people can speak freely about a subject that has become taboo.
“We’ve tried to shield our children. Some of them don’t know what to do at a funeral home or how to support a friend who’s lost someone,” she says. “We’ve raised a whole generation of folks that may not be talking about death.”
Audrey Pellicano, 60, a Death Cafe facilitator, says it’s not surprising baby boomers have avoided talking about death because their generation has been resisting ageing for decades.
“We don’t deal with loss,” she says. “We know how to acquire things, not how to give them up. We have no idea how to leave this life and everything we’ve got.” – AP
Not your usual conversations: robb Kushner talks with alicia evans (back to camera) during a death cafe discussion in a new york city apartment. at rear are Marjorie Lipari (left) and discussion leader Jane Hughes Gignoux. death cafes, where people talk freely about death-related issues, are rapidly spreading through the US and the world. — aP
an invitation to a death cafe discussion in new york city.