The Death Cafe


I counted thirteen participants, a disquieting number for a meeting about death. 

There were three men besides me, none of them beyond their fifties, I guessed. Of the women, the oldest claimed to be ninety-four and quoted literature when she spoke. Three of the other women walked with the help of canes. Another used a wheelchair.

Make no mistake, these are renegades. Not physically, perhaps, but certainly in mind and spirit. Because they gather regularly to do something few among us are willing or able to—discuss death casually and over snacks.

Some were there as a way to mourn departed spouses, parents or children. Others to discuss mortality in order to gain insights into their own approaching death—an event none of us will evade.

It’s called the Death Café.

Morbid, you say? I thought so when I was invited to attend a gathering last week in Provincetown’s community center, where the Café was conducted much like a pop-up restaurant.

But morbid was not the vibe. If anything, there was a lot of laughter.

The sense in the room was one of courage, of breaking taboos, of shared acceptance that a life can shimmer like a star and steal away quick as a snowflake.

As Lemony Snicket wrote in The Austere Academy, “Everybody will die, but very few people want to be reminded of that fact.”

This doesn’t apply to the people I met a week ago.

The concept of the Death Café was inspired by Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz in 2004. There are now numerous versions of his original model, held around the world. The aim is to increase the awareness and acceptance of death as a way to help people make the most of their earthly life.

The Death Café is not intended to change views about death. Most participants say it’s simply helpful to meet people with different viewpoints about an experience that’s universally shared.

Nor is the Death Café a therapy session. It is instead a way to learn more about a subject that by its nature is unknowable.

Author Robert Brault comes close to illustrating the idea:

Why be saddled with this thing called life expectancy? Of what relevance to an individual is such a statistic? Am I to concern myself with an allotment of days I never had and was never promised? Must I check off each day of my life as if I am subtracting from this imaginary hoard? No, on the contrary, I will add each day of my life to my treasure of days lived. And with each day, my treasure will grow, not diminish.

“We don’t have any answers around death and dying,” said Jon Underwood, who was one of the Death Café originators. “We all just come to this with our questions.” 

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