By Nancy Frazier O’Brien
BALTIMORE (CNS) – When Valerie Sirani and Amy Brown hosted the first gathering in Baltimore known as a “death cafe,” they did not know what to expect.
“If five people showed up, I would have been happy with that,” Brown told Catholic News Service.
Instead they had 29 participants, ranging in age from 18 to 85, for a two-hour discussion over coffee and cake of issues many have a hard time discussing with their friends and relatives.
Sirani, a palliative care nurse, and Brown, who works in gynecological oncology at a Baltimore hospital, both have a longtime interest in issues surrounding death and dying. When they heard through a mutual friend about the social movement known as death cafes, both wanted to bring the idea to their town.
The first death cafe took place in 2011 in London, based on the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who hosted what he called “cafe mortels” in Switzerland and France years earlier. The first U.S. death cafe was in 2012 in Columbus, Ohio.
As of July 2013, about 1,000 people in England, Wales, the U.S., Australia and Italy had attended death cafes, according to the movement’s website at www.deathcafe.com.
The objective of the gatherings is to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives,” the web- site says.
Dealing with Survivorship
As a nurse working with women suffering from cancers of the repro- ductive organs, Brown said she has found “a huge part” of her work “is the survivorship piece.”
“There is a fair amount of death, dying and bereavement,” she said. “But there is also a huge survivorship component.”
Brown said she sees “a lot of death anxiety in the United States – among health professionals, patients, friends and family.” But if people are “willing to talk about death and dying, they are willing to talk about life and living” and more willing “to accept death as a reality,” she said.
There is no set agenda or schedule for the death cafes, in order to allow participants to dictate what they would like to talk about. The only rules are that no one should try to sway other participants to a particular ideology or belief system and that the discussion must be respectful and confidential. And there also must be cake or some other nourishment.
Religion and spirituality can play a large part in the discussions, although participants in the Baltimore death cafe came from a wide variety of religious backgrounds. Some were Catholics, some agnostic, several were nondenominational Christians and there was a Buddhist, an Episcopalian and a self-described “animist/Bahaiish” person.
“It’s just natural and inevitable (in discussing death) that religion or a belief in the afterlife or a higher power will come up,” Brown said. “But the idea is to keep this as ideology-free as possible so that everyone will feel comfortable and no one will feel judged.”
At the Baltimore death cafe, which took place at a bakery in the summer of 2013, participants broke into small groups for discussions. One group jumped right in, Brown said, while others took advantage of a container filled with questions designed to promote conversation.
The questions, written by Brown, ranged from the serious – What is a good death? Do you want to be cremated or buried? How is death portrayed in films? What scares you about death? – to the whimsical – If death were a person, what would it look like and sound like and what clothes would it wear?
Many participants said two hours was not enough time for the discus- sion, and most said they would come to another such gathering.
One man at the Baltimore gathering shared with his table that his mother had died that morning, on the 31st anniversary of the death of his father. Brown, who sat at a different table, said she did not hear about the man’s story until she read about it in a newspaper article.
“I’m sorry I didn’t know about that,” Brown said. “But it’s another reminder of how life is. You can be in the company of someone for a while and have no clue about what they might have experienced that day.”