SEATTLE -- Let’s talk about death.
That may not be an advertisement you expect will draw a crowd, but social events encouraging conversations on death are popping up all over the world. Death Cafes can be found in homes, restaurants and churches throughout the Northwest nearly every week, inviting strangers to come together and talk about a topic many consider taboo.
The first Death Cafe was organized by Jon Underwood in London in 2011. Since then, similar events have been held in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Singapore, Brazil and Portugal.
Death Cafe organizers say their events have no motive other than spurring a discussion. There are no profits, lectures, or sales pitches at Death Cafes. All counseling or conversion is forbidden, and no one is allowed to network or offer professional advice.
Instead, attendees simply show up, enjoy a snack and share some of their most intimate thoughts on death with people they’ve just met.
“A lot of people want to talk about death, but their friends and family don’t,” said Joan Hitchins, a bereavement specialist in Olympia who organized a Death Cafe last month. “It can be easier to talk about these things with a stranger.”
Hitchins learned quickly there is a strong demand for Death Cafes in her community. All 20 spaces for her event were reserved in just 48 hours.
In an environment that forbids judgment, conversations can go anywhere, said John Eric Rolfstad, a Death Cafe organizer and funeral co-op director in Seattle. Attendees may discuss suicide, near-death experiences, a loved one’s final moments of life, cremation, cultural traditions or life after death.
Rolfstad said he hosted his first Death Cafe last month because he wanted to offer people a safe space to talk about death and dying.
“I know from experience when people ask me at a party what I do for a living the conversation kind of drops,” he said. “A lot of people just don’t want to talk about end-of-life stuff in polite company.”
Cate Innish of Vancouver said she enjoys talking to people she doesn’t know personally at Death Cafes.
“We’re a lot more free to speak our truth because we’re not taking care of other people’s feelings,” she said. “You can just be yourself and be more honest and truthful.”
Dr. Carolyn Logsdon, a psychotherapist at Pacific Medical Center who has worked in hospice care, said people who are willing to talk about death are able to cope better if a loved one dies or if their own life is threatened.
“People don’t want to think about painful things,” Logsdon said. “But if we explore our beliefs, our traditions or rituals about death, we will be better prepared to deal with it when it happens.”
People attend Death Cafes for a variety of reasons. Holly Pruett of Portland, Ore. attended her first Death Cafe after her father died.
“I was trying to make sense of his passing,” she said. “But, we live in a death-phobic culture where grief and death are seen as a pathology to be turned over to a medical or psychological professionals.”
Abegael Fisher-Lang of Vancouver, B.C. said she was “smitten” after attending her first Death Cafe and has since organized several of the events.
“It’s remarkable,” she said. “People come with such good-will to share. They’re willing to sit at a table with new people and let the conversation happen.”
Typically Death Cafes do not include presented content. The most direction participants are given are conversation starters found on meeting tables. Sometimes Death Cafes will include a planned activity, such as placing the photo of a loved one who has died on a memorial table.
Perhaps surprisingly, Fisher-Lang said Death Cafes are not appropriate for people who are grieving.
“We have turned people away who have lost a loved one very recently,” she said. “It’s not a grieving session. There are no therapists or counselors.”
And despite the events' focus, Fisher-Lang said Death Cafes are not depressing – they’re life-affirming.
“It’s like being at a party with a bunch of people you just met,” she said. “There’s such warmth and interest. It ends up being full of laughter. Sometimes there are a few tears, but it’s mostly about celebrating life.”