Ever been to a death cafe?
One of the first thoughts that came up for me when I heard the term death café was “What the hell is on the menu?” Turns out, not that type of café.
The death café I attended was being hosted at the Tattered Cover Bookstore, one of the landmarks and cultural mainstays of Denver. The café is a group of people that come together on a monthly basis, at different venues, to talk about death. It just so happened that I attended on Father’s Day (It’s a second Sunday of the month thing).
This project is changing my relationship with parent holidays – first the talk with my folks on Mother’s Day and now Death Cafes on Father’s Day. My wife just had hip surgery so we were pushing off the Father’s Day thing anyway. In a slightly weird attempt at making it family oriented I did bring my oldest daughter but she wanted nothing to do with the conversation deciding instead to browse books.
When I arrived at the sunken reading room that was our meeting spot, several attendees had already gathered. The spot itself was a contradiction that felt like a perfect match for the content. The majority of the seats were pulled from an old movie theater, the red fabric frayed and slightly threadbare from overuse. Books surrounded and looked down upon us implying, “We outlasted the theater and we’ll be around long after you’re gone as well.” There’s a permanence to text that is comforting and welcoming to deep thought or conversation.
Nancy English was our host and guide for the hour and a half conversation. Nancy has been doing the death café thing for over four years after a long career as a hospice nurse. She projected the calm confidence that comes with someone super familiar with the subject matter. She greeted me warmly when I walked in even though I didn’t officially sign up for the café conversation.
Nancy kicked off the conversation by having everyone introduce themselves and explain why they were interested in the topic. There were probably seven or eight other attendees and they varied from early thirties to mid-eighties in age. Many of them had been to the café conversation before but at least three of us were first timers. All the other participants were women.
When I introduced myself I discussed the idea that is becoming Legacy Foundry. The group was very welcoming. As I spoke and looked about the room, the eyes that met mine were filled with quiet encouragement. The idea was accepted with polite nods but it took me talking about my own brush with mortality to find real connection. In a conversation like this, the more you are willing to open up the more you’ll get from it.
After we all shared our experiences, Nancy tossed out a couple of topics to get the ball rolling. These quickly went off on tangents that were of interest to one participant or another. That was the point. Discuss the topics that are important to you as long as the conversation doesn’t stray too far from the central topic, death.
The best contributions came in the form of stories. I’m reluctant to share any of these stories because I don’t feel that they are mine to share. What I will say is that each story and the tone of the conversation in general was delivered with a high level of positivity. The participants weren’t there looking for allies in their battle against death, they were there to understand it, to change their relationship with it. This takes courage. To understand death, you have to accept the reality that it will eventually take us all. That courage is contagious and it grows stronger when shared.
One of the questions I asked was why there were no other men in the conversation. One of the things we found during 10.10.10 is that men seem to struggle with the taboo more than women. The group quickly came to the defense of men saying that there were normally plenty of men that contribute. They blamed Father’s Day. I’m sure that was part of it but I was not convinced. Women give us the benefit of the doubt thinking we don’t disproportionally struggle with it. I shared a stat that we collected from UC Health’s portal that offered the ability to put your advanced directives right into their health exchange. When we looked at the data, it showed that of the participants that used it, 70% were women. That seems statistically significant.
After that stat, the group tackled the subject with gusto. The prevailing theory was that since men were historically the warriors of society, they had a different taboo on death than women. It was almost as if talking about it brought its attention to you or lowered your confidence when in a tight situation. Thinking about death while going into battle is not a great idea. The warrior culture teaches invulnerability as long as you follow your training. This brainwashing, however well intentioned, is what allows soldiers to take that hill or hold the field against superior numbers. The group was optimistic that as our culture changed so did the gender inequalities around talking about death. They had a ton of stories to back that optimism up. Again, these stories made the conversation a lot of fun.
When the hour and a half was up, I was disappointed. We could have easily gone for another hour. Nancy was a great mediator though and she brought us back to the topic and closed by asking us what our biggest takeaway was from the experience. There were a lot of great ones. My takeaway was that the conversation around death wasn’t intimidating at all once it started. Starting it was the hard part. I was shocked by how engaged I was and how much fun I had.
I will definitely be back. I highly recommend you look up the local death café in your area and go participate. It’s worth it.