You might think that talking about death would be somber, and yes, sometimes it was.
But there was plenty of laughter. One man introduced himself by saying, “Today is a banner day. Today I’ve lived longer than I’ve ever lived before.”
One woman told the story of a friend, who, when she learned she had inoperable cancer, said, “Oh, I don’t have to go to work anymore.”
One man said he was comfortable with the idea of dying, but he couldn’t get himself to move on the paperwork like his will and advanced directive.
We heard about a woman with a terminal disease who was determined to end her own life and planned her suicide so thoroughly, she even sought out a partner for her soon-to-be-widowed spouse.
Another participant told about a friend who was dying who asked to have his funeral before he died, and he did, with a marching band and a theater troupe performing skits, and then he died two days later.
We even heard about a new attempt to use virtual reality to help people prepare for death. You put this contraption on your head and experience entering into a different reality.
But there were also tears. One woman, whose mother had died a number of years ago, found herself unexpectedly crying. She had missed her mother’s death, and is still grieving over that.
This Death Cafe, on the last day of March, was hosted by Sukhasiddhi Foundation (pronounced suka city), a Buddhist meditation center in Fairfax, California. I had attended one in the same venue four years ago — see My First Death Cafe — and for almost everyone who came then, it was for the first time. This time, at least half had attended one before.
Death Cafe is a “social franchise,” which mean anyone can host one, use the name Death Cafe, post their event to deathcafe.com, and speak to the press as an affiliate of Death Cafe. The events are usually free or for a small donation. There’s no agenda, or intent to sell people on a product or idea. And there’s always coffee and cake. It’s a discussion group, not grief support or counseling.
The Death Cafe model was founded and developed in 2011 in London by Jon Underwood and Susan Barsky Reid, and built on the ideas of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who opened a Café Mortel (Death Café) for an exhibition in his Geneva museum called La Mort à Vivre (Death for Life).
Pat Berube, a teacher at Sukhasiddhi, facilitated this gathering and said that since the Death Cafe started, more than 8,000 gatherings have taken place. All over the world, primarily the western countries, but in April, there are Death Cafes scheduled in Lagos, Nigeria, and Lázaro Cárdenas in Michoacán, Mexico. There’s even a Virtual Death Cafe meeting online on April 12 via Zoom.
Since I attended my first Death Cafe, the founder, Jon Underwood, died of leukemia at 44. I also learned that the man who led the Death Cafe in Fairfax four years ago had died as well. (I do remember that when he introduced himself, he said he had a terminal disease.)
What’s also happened in the past four years has been an explosion in the end-of-life movement. More organizations are promoting talking about dying. More doctors and medical practitioners are urging a change in how we approach death.
The Netflix documentary, End Game, gives viewers an intimate look at dying patients at UCSF Medical Center and the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco.
Another documentary, Extremis, which was nominated for a 2017 Academy Award and 2 Emmys, explores end of life-decision-making in the intensive care unit
Dr. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, published in 2014, has been hugely influential. Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Ellen Goodman founded the Conversation Project to make it easier to initiate conversations about dying.
This fall, in San Francisco, a group called Reimagine End of Life, will be hosting its second gathering exploring death through music, comedy, dance, and the arts.
There are more than 100 Death Cafes scheduled this April, from Denmark to New Zealand to Texas. Sukhasiddhi has hosted more than ten in the past five years.
At the Sukhasiddhi gathering, after introductions, we settled into discussions at tables of four or five, and we took turns talking about why were there. I spoke about my mom dying last year, at 95. But more about her decline—how she lost her sight, then her mobility, then her mind. We had a small crowd on a sunny and gorgeous Sunday afternoon, but it was a very moving, intimate, and profound experience.
I left feeling grateful.
You can find a Death Cafe near you at deathcafe.com.