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What we talk about when we talk about death

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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 rules

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.

The history

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 ( 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.

Loveless song

“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.

The event is held outside a restaurant in the desert air and when I arrive the 20 attendees — 18 women and two men, including me — sit in a circle around candles and notecards based on the themes of Beyond Knowing.

Talk delves into territory often held as taboo in our culture. Sara wants “DNR” (do not resuscitate) tattooed over her heart. Molly wants her body washed and prepared by loved ones.

As with all the Death Cafés, there is no agenda or effort to push the attendees into a particular ideology. Bentz tells me, “While not everyone agrees with one another’s thoughts on death and dying, the café is not a place for debate.” It’s also not a place for grief counseling.

“When someone’s at that white-hot level of grieving, there are places for that, but it’s not the Death Café,” Bentz says.

The discussions tend to be more philosophical, regarding the nature of death, or more practical, as in what to do with the body.

Nina, a young woman in her 20s, has a heart defect. The very thing that keeps her alive, keeps the blood pumping through her body, is a ticking time bomb. Because of her situation, she’s more in tune with the idea of dying. She has a plan in place for when death takes her.

“I know what I want done with me when I’m gone,” Nina says. “I want to return to nature. I want to die outside. I want my loved ones to take me to a spot I’ve picked out in Wyoming where I can be a source of food for bears, badgers and wolverines.”


The morning after the death café meeting in Tucson, I’m in the Blue Willow Café talking with Kristine Bentz.

“I went for a walk this morning and saw a lizard this big.” I hold my hands a shoulder width apart.

“That must have been a Gila monster,” she tells me. “That’s a good sign, to see one of those your first time in Tucson.”

A sign, a symbol, I like the sound of that.

We eat breakfast — a feast of fresh fruit, bacon, yogurt and granola.

Bentz says: “ ‘You can see, food is important! Because if you don’t wanna die, eat!’ ” That’s a famous line from the movie “Departures,” (the 2008 Japanese film that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film).

I listen to the advice; I eat; and, just to be sure, I eat some more.

“So, what else do you want to know?”

“Taboo,” I say. “I want to get a grip on why the subject of death is such a taboo in the West.”

“People think if you talk about death, you become closer to death, but that’s not the case at all. If you talk about death, you become more alive.”

Final words

I’m back at the café in St. Joe with Jackie and Mona and Jerry. We’re still talking about death. Mooney has asked us to provide our final thoughts for the night. Mona’s husband stands up from his own table of four, and says to the group: “I have no regrets. I’ve screwed up a lot. But every screw up I’ve made has led me to where I am right now and I wouldn’t change that for anything.”

He sits down. People laugh and clap. I figure I’m off the hook.

“Have you thought about how you want to die?” Mona asks me.

“Well, not so much how, though I want to rule out being ripped apart by wolverines.” I say.

“What have you figured out?” Mona asks.

“I don’t want to go before my parents. Because I don’t think that’s right. It’s not the natural order of things. Parents shouldn’t bury their kids. And, selfishly, I want to see my eight-year-old grow up. I want to see her get her diploma. I want to walk her down the aisle. I want to be there for her when she delivers her first child.”

“That’s not selfish,” Mona says. “That’s normal.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I say. “And, I guess, to copy your husband’s thoughts, I don’t have regrets. We’re here, at this point in our lives, for a reason. Have you seen “Back to the Future?” If we go back and change anything, y’know, it screws up the whole space-time continuum.

“As long as I can outlive my parents and see my daughter grow up then I guess you’d say, I’m not scared of death and what it has to offer. It is what it is.”

“That’s pretty cool,” Mona says.

“Yeah, but as I’ve said all that, I see the falseness in it, too. I’m talking all Zen-like ‘whatever happens happens,’ but when I’m on the plane tomorrow and we hit turbulence as we get near Denver, I’ll be gripping the armrest or maybe my neighbor’s arm, my heart thumping in my throat while I’m praying and chanting like a Tibetan Monk.”

Mona laughs and is joined by the rest of the table — four people no longer scared to death about death and laughing in its face.

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