Friday, February 5, 2016

Death Cafes

Are Americans less likely to talk about their mortality than people in other countries? A search I did earlier this week—“Do Americans tend not to talk about death and dying?”—brought up the following articles:

·      “Why Are Americans Scared to Talk About Dying?,” published on the website of National Journal on Feb. 1.

·      The website of “Life in the USA,” an organization created to help immigrants better understand American culture, states: “Where many other cultures view death as a natural progression in the cycle of life among generations, the American culture prefers not to talk about death. When death does approach or arrive, as it inevitably must, Americans often use euphemisms: ‘passed on,’ ‘passed away,’ or even just ‘passed’ are all in current use.”

·      On the website of Vox, under a gorgeous image of sunlight illuminating a graveyard, the subject is “How Americans’ refusal to talk about death hurts the elderly.”

But Americans’ willingness to speak frankly about their mortality has been on the rise for many decades, beginning with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s landmark book On Death and Dying in 1969. And one recent manifestation of this trend is the rise of Death Cafes, venues for talking about the fine points of death and dying, typically accompanied with caffeinated beverages and sweets.
I heard the term for the first time a couple of weeks ago, when Paula brought home from the Somerville Library a bright-blue flyer with the words Death Cafe prominently displayed in a jaunty font. It took me a fraction of a second to confirm that it did not refer to “Death Cab,” the shortened name of one of my favorite bands. But the script served its purpose. This would not be a somber experience. Paula and I were curious.
The first thing that struck me—other than that it was well attended, with seventeen people spread among two groups—was that there were several young people on hand. One of them mentioned that he recently lost a friend to opiate abuse. A pair of youthful sisters spoke articulately, and sometimes quibbled, about elder care and end-of-life policies. One expressed a desire to someday own a beautiful necklace with a decoration for holding her parents’ ashes. Paula noted that she’d always assumed that I would outlive her, an expectation that was turned upside down by my diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. She also mentioned the loss of a beloved grandmother who died suddenly when she was a teenager. A woman with a terminal condition spoke matter-of-factly about the terms of her dying.
Others spoke about the extent to which family members should be bound to the deceased’s wishes. If a person planned to be cremated, what would become of the ashes? Keep the urn in a closet? Display it prominently? Bury the urn and ashes in a family cemetery plot? Scatter the ashes in the wind, over a favorite lake or bay? Would doing so go against health and environmental regulations?
One topic concerned social media. Should survivors of the deceased shut down the person’s Facebook site, making clear that a presence on Facebook did not connote immortality? Or transform it into a virtual shrine, with comments and “likes” helping to show that the person has not been forgotten?
Not surprisingly, most venues dedicated to Death Cafes are in affluent nations, North America and Western Europe in particular. All six habitable continents are home to the phenomenon, although southeastern Europe and Russia, perhaps having more pressing matters to worry about, appear to be largely indifferent to the concept. And the only Death Cafe in the Middle East or North Africa is in Jerusalem.
The session that Paula and I attended took place at the Somerville Central Library and was facilitated by Glenn Ferdman, the library director, and Janine Lotti, who is the city’s Council on Aging’s senior project manager.
Ferdman, who became acquainted with the Death Cafe concept while working in the Kansas City area, handed out a “Death and Dying” bibliography that includes titles such as Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande; Things I’ve Learned From Dying: A Book About Life, by David R. Dow; and The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch, written by the celebrated computer scientist who died in 2008 from pancreatic cancer at age forty-seven.


  1. I remember my dear, practical grandmother trying to talk about disbursing her things after she'd died with my father and mother at dinner out one night. I thought, "oh my god, are we actually going to talk about something real?" I think my parents shut it down pretty quickly. I want to be more like my grandmother. Hey, the lifeboat cruise is purely a rental.

    1. My mom, now 87, lost her father in a logging accident when she was 12. Her life illustrates Hemingway's line, "Many are strong in the broken places."

  2. I highly recommend "Being Mortal". Very important for all of us dealing with either eldercare or our own impeding "graduation" as my parents call it.