Cafés open dialogue about death
Cafés open dialogue about death
Christine Kovach and Susan Barber want to talk to Alamedans about death. Photo by Janice Worthen.
Christine Kovach and Susan Barber have faced death for decades, Kovach as a hospice social worker and now, therapist, and Barber as a hospice volunteer coordinator who spent a decade working with people who were dying or suffering from life-threatening illnesses. When they heard about death cafés, they wanted to start one.
“(We’ve) been open to and seeking a conversation about death for decades,” Kovach said. “This was the natural evolution for that conversation.”
The cafés were conceived to offer an open dialogue about death – along with a comforting slice of cake or two. And while they originated in Europe, they have become especially popular in California, with cafés popping up in Oakland, Sacramento, Ukiah, Santa Cruz and Petaluma; there’s even a death café for pet owners in Los Angeles, which is already fully booked.
Kovach and Barber hosted Alameda’s first death café a few days before Thanksgiving in a private, upstairs room at Julie’s Coffee & Tea Garden. They expected four or five people to show up; the actual turnout was 22 – a surprise, despite the fact that other cafés have generated a similarly enthusiastic turnout. Though the space was cozy and confidential per Death Café guidelines, Kovach said that the large turnout will require a bigger space in the future.
Inspired by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz and his “Café Mortels,” Death Café founder Jon Underwood and his mother, Sue Barsky Reid, developed their own cafés putting death on the menu in 2010. They held their first death café at Underwood’s London home in September 2011, and Lizzy Miles of Columbus, Ohio held the first American death café a year later.
According to the official Death Café website, nearly 400 of the cafés have been set up around the world, attracting more than 3,000 participants.
The objective of the café gatherings is to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives,” the website says. According to its founders, this awareness is achieved through an open dialogue about death conducted while participants enjoy cake, tea, and each other’s company.
Anyone who wants to host a death café must follow a set of guidelines, which include mentioning its founders; holding the café in a safe, confidential place; and providing drinks and the requisite cake. The cafés are not to be held for profit, though donations to cover food and venue costs are acceptable. Hosts aren’t supposed to lead people to any conclusion, product or course of action, and having a set agenda or specific topics for discussion is discouraged because it might limit participation or scope.
In deference to the guidelines, Kovach said she and Barber didn’t draw up a defined list of topics, but offered some suggestions to get the conversation started. The hosts stepped in occasionally to make sure everyone who wanted to speak had the opportunity – and to remind participants to speak one at a time so everyone could follow the conversation.
“I wanted the discussion to remain open and not have an agenda. I wanted it to be safe and not taboo,” Kovach said.
Although what’s discussed during Death Café is confidential, common themes include preparation for death, what the dying process is like for the dying and loved ones, what life is like for the living after losing a loved one, and what constitutes a “good death.” The founders of Death Café stress that cafés are not intended for grief counseling or as places to get information about death, but are instead opportunities to have conversations about death that may not be happening elsewhere.
“Death is a natural part of life,” Kovach said.
Kovach said that the violent death people are exposed to in the media isn’t how most people die and that “people are hungry for a different conversation.” She said most people aren’t prepared for death emotionally, legally or financially, and that they haven’t thought about how they want others to remember them.
“Contemplating death makes me more intentional in my choices, in looking at what’s meaningful in what I’ve done. It helps me notice what is good and joyful,” Kovach said. “Thinking about death makes life more precious.”
Kovach and Barber plan to host another Death Café in January; they'd like them to become a regular event on the Island. Anyone interested in attending can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Death Café website to RSVP and find updates and other information.