In most settings, serious talk of one’s mortality would be a conversation-stopper: a downer, a real bummer that would cause people to move politely away from you. Not so at a Death Café gathering like the one being planned in Kingston this Sunday afternoon, August 25, where anyone interested in exploring the subject in a safe, comfortable setting can enjoy the company of others – and partake of coffee, tea and cake, too. Sponsored by the newly organized not-for-profit Circle of Friends for the Dying, the first local Death Café will meet at Hudson Coffee Traders on Wall Street from 2:30 to 4 p.m., with the express purpose being to open up a meaningful exchange that will “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their lives.”
That objective was outlined by the European originators of the concept in 2004. Since then, informal groups have been meeting worldwide, with the first official Death Café taking place in the US in 2011. It has become a movement of sorts, indicating a need that we humans have to talk about things traditionally left unsaid – things like our fears and concerns about dying, issues surrounding medical attention at the end of life, funeral options and near-death experiences: all the stuff that might cross your mind now and then, but never gets talked about with your family and friends.
Barbara Sarah calls death the “elephant in the room.” It’s something that we all know is there, but we try to ignore it until the last possible necessary instant. As co-president with Laurie Schwartz of Circle of Friends for the Dying and the founder of Benedictine Hospital’s oncology support program, Sarah is perhaps hyperaware of death as an unavoidable factor in life. And she’s aware of the effects of ignoring the subject. “Life is about where you put your attention, how you live your finite days,” she says, echoing the Death Café founders’ intentions. “I’ve been doing this work for 20 years, this learning to be in the moment. If the average lifespan is 82 years, that’s about 30,000 days. That means I only have a few thousand days left, and the question becomes how to live with what I have left.”
The format of Death Café will look like small groups of people gathered at tables, intensely talking. Each table will include a moderator who will suggest a “menu” of thought-provoking questions and keep the conversation focused. At the end, participants will be given a “doggie bag” of ideas to take home and hopefully use to continue their exploration. With no intention to lead participants to any particular conclusion or course of action, the event will serve to bring awareness to our common concerns about both living and dying, and infuse quality and richness to both processes.
Sunday’s Death Café will be open to all and free of charge, but Sarah encourages people to register, as space is limited. She expects to have a full house – and face the necessity of finding a larger venue next month, as meetings are already in the works to take place on the fourth Sundays of September and October. And don’t forget: Cake seems to be an integral part of Death Café gatherings.
For more information about the movement, visit www.deathcafe.com. And to register for this one, call (914) 466-5763 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Hudson Coffee Traders is located at 288 Wall Street in Kingston. Donations to support future Death Cafés will be appreciated.