Death Cafe: A Lively Conversation On A Grave Topic

Aug 11, 2017

When Laurie Jones was 10 years old, her older sister died suddenly of a heart attack at school.

Jones recalls being called down to the principal's office with her brothers and being told they were going home early that day. She remembers thinking that maybe her parents were taking them on a surprise vacation.

Jones, now 55, is no stranger to talking about her sister’s passing. But talking about it in a room full of strangers is something she never thought she would do.

"You didn’t talk about death. There were no grief counselors, there was nothing," Jones said. "There was no outlet for us, and I think that’s just kind of messed me up my whole life.”

Jones was one of more than 20 people who gathered at the Aurora Public Library recently to talk about their experiences with death.

This was part of Death Café, a social franchise of discussion groups that tackle the difficult subject over tea and cake.

Credit Jessie Schlacks / WNIJ

Some meet monthly, forming casual circles in local coffee shops. Others occur more sporadically, popping up wherever someone is passionate enough to organize it.

But all of the events abide by founder Jon Underwood’s original mission: to increase awareness of death and help people make the most of their finite life.

This was organizer Lynne Staley’s second time hosting a Death Café. She says she sees the event as an opportunity to create a safe place for people to share their story of grief and loss.

"In our culture, it gets minimized: 'Oh, it’s not so bad. You’re strong,'" Staley said. "You know, we have this whole, ‘Be strong for others,’ so we have this almost cultural expectation that we can’t fall apart. And I think the message should be, when sad things happen, isn’t it appropriate to be sad?"

Co-facilitator and psychotherapist Cindy Thelen agrees that we live in a death-denying society.

“Nobody will talk about these things," Thelen said. "You don’t talk about them at a party, because that’s not appropriate. Even if you go out to dinner with friends and you start to get deep and talk about it, people are like, ‘Oh, that’s so morbid! We should stop talking about that!’”

Thelen said events like Death Café can be a driving force in breaking the death taboo in the United States.

Attendees varied in age, occupation, and experience with death. Some worked in the industry, as grief counselors, funeral directors or hospice volunteers. Others simply wanted an outlet to discuss a personal loss or a looming fear of dying.

Corina Collier attended primarily to support her mom, Laurie. But she also hoped it might ease some of her anxiety about death.

Collier says she understands that the event might seem strange to others.

"I was talking to one of the other women and she said, ‘Yeah, my daughter saw this on the calendar, Death Café,' and they were like, 'What are you doing?’ When I told that to my husband, he’s like, ‘What are you going to?’ Exactly what it looks like," Collier said.

The event only has three rules: Don’t give each other advice. Don’t dominate the conversation. And don’t promote any specific religious or spiritual beliefs.

Participants are broken up into groups of four to six. Each group has a facilitator, who volunteers at the Death Café to help bridge gaps in the conversation. Midway through the evening, the groups rotate and a new conversation begins.

Facilitator Dan Smolla says he was pleasantly surprised by how easily conversation flowed.

“I was just one more person talking in my group about my experiences with death," Smolla said. "You know, what I found today is that the group takes care of itself. As crazy as it may sound, I had a really great time today.”

Information on upcoming events can be found on the Death Café website.