We’re sitting around a table in St. Joseph, Mo. at Café Pony Espresso, drinking hot coffee from Styrofoam cups and talking about death.
Jackie says she’s wants to die quietly in her sleep.
Mona says she’s wants to die of very old age.
I say, “Come back to me in a minute, I need to give it more thought.”
Jerry says he’s picked out the songs for his service. “I know this sounds corny,” Jerry says, “but I want them to play ‘Feed Jake.’ And that other one, too, what’s the name? I think it’s a Patty Loveless song. Oh, what’s the name?” he says, snapping his fingers as if he needs the answer right now.
The event’s facilitator, Megan Mooney, interrupts the conversation to deliver the rules for the Death Café.
See Part 1 in this series: The death project
The people range in age from their early 20s to their indistinguishable 80s. Most have lost someone close to them — a spouse, a child, a parent. Some are here to find answers about their own mortality. Others want answers to the meaning of death and life. Mooney leads us through the four tenants of the Death Café movement.
- The event is free from ideology;
- The event should feel safe and nuturing;
- The event should be accessible and respectful of all;
- The event should be confidential.
Everything else, it seems, is fair game.
A death café—or café mortel — is not so much a venue as an event. With a piece of cake and a cup of coffee their only weapons against the specter of death, people of various backgrounds gather in an intimate setting for an opportunity to air thoughts and feelings they ordinarily keep hidden from view. Building on the European practice of gathering in public places to discuss important subjects such as science or philosophy, Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, author of Cafés Mortels: Sortir la Mort du Silence (Death Cafes: Bringing Death out of Silence), hosted the first death café in 2004. Eventually, these unique gatherings spread to the UK, where Web designer Jon Underwood set up a website devoted to the phenomenon (deathcafe.com). Since hospice worker Lizzy Miles hosted the first stateside café in Columbus, Ohio, death cafés have been held in cafés, restaurants, even people’s basements — anywhere where society’s deeply ingrained instinct to deny the inevitable can be temporarily lifted.
“My brother and sister died this year,” says Jerry. “I always figured they’d outlive me, but I … watched them die.”
We nod our heads.
“Sorry,” we say. “Sorry.”
“I should be dead,” Jerry says. “I wasn’t but 16 or maybe 17. I used to ride with my friends in a pickup every day after school. I mean, I rode with them every day, except this one day. They rode up and honked and I stepped out on the porch and told them I wasn’t going today. I didn’t have a reason for not going. I just didn’t go. They drove off and were dead within the hour from a car crash.”
“Oh,” Jackie says, as if gut shot.
“That’s horrible,” I say.
Mona doesn’t say anything for a long time. Then she tells us about the death of her daughter at the age of 26 from cancer.
“Is life and death random?” she asks. “Why else would I be here and she be gone? From a logical standpoint it doesn’t make sense.” She shakes her head back and forth. “Some days I’m confused and frustrated about it. Some days I’m spitting mad. It doesn’t make sense. She was better than I am. I don’t say that because she was mine and because she’s gone. She was better than me. She just was.”
Jackie looks at the sheet of paper for a conversation starter. Before she can read anything off, Jerry jumps in.
“I know I need to get my stuff together, y’know,” he says.
He admits to being closer to death than birth, but aren’t we all.
Jerry snaps his fingers again.
“ ‘How Can I Help You Say Goodbye?’ ” he says. “That’s the Patty Loveless song I couldn’t think of before. ‘How Can I Help You Say Goodbye?’ I might ask for that one and ‘Feed Jake’ to be played at my service.”
He rubs his chin, thinking about what he’s said.
“I don’t know about the Loveless song, though. Maybe it’s too depressing.”
“Hey, it’s your funeral,” Jackie says.
See our infographic: Death by the numbers
Return to nature
A few weeks after the first event, I travel to Arizona for The Friendly and Fearless Tucson Death Café.
Kristine Bentz, the group’s facilitator, bases the evening’s focus on a book she’s been reading—Beyond Knowing: Mysteries & Messages of Death & Life from a Forensic Pathologist.