I’d never heard of a “Death Café” until I got the notice about Charlotte’s first such event Wednesday.
It’s just like it sounds: People sitting around, eating cake, drinking coffee and discussing death.
That may sound a little creepy to some. But for me, it was intriguing. It comes at a time when talking about the end of life seems more natural than it used to.
This summer, I was holding her hand when one of my best friends died at a hospice house. And I was in the hospital rooms with my parents when they died in 2001 and 2007.
In each case, after hours of watchful waiting, the end seemed to come suddenly. One moment, they were breathing. Then they weren’t. It seemed like a pause, but then so final. I was struck by how peaceful the transition was from life to death. I am honored to have been a witness to these incredible moments.
The hosts for Charlotte’s first Death Café are Jillian Tullis, a communications studies professor at UNC Charlotte, and Lyndall Hare, a gerontologist and elder care coach who works at The Respite: A Centre for Grief and Hope on Monroe Road.
About six months ago, Tullis came upon an article about the Death Café and its creator, Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. His ideas were disseminated in 2011 by Jon Underwood, a British Web designer, at www.deathcafe.com, and the movement spread quickly across the globe. Both Raleigh and Durham have hosted Death Cafés in recent months. The idea is to get people talking.
Death “really is a taboo word,” Tullis said. “Some people are afraid to say it. They think it’s morbid to talk about death. But I am of the mind that talking about it is more freeing. It’s liberating to let people know where you stand, what you want.”
Early experience with death shaped her thinking. One of her aunts died of cervical cancer in her 30s, when Tullis was about 10. And her grandfather died suddenly when Tullis was in high school. But she said family members didn’t discuss it. She didn’t really talk with her mother about death until years later, when they shared an interest in the TV drama, “Six Feet Under.”
Tullis volunteers for hospice and spends a lot of time with dying people, listening to the stories of their joys and regrets. “It reminds us of our own mortality when somebody else dies,” she said. “I feel like my life is more full because I know that this life doesn’t last forever.”
Hare, the gerontologist, said some people may be put off by the name Death Café. “But I personally think it’s provocative, and that intrigues me. We do so much soft-peddling around all these things. So let’s just tell it like it is.”
The baby boom generation is “preparing for death in a more conscious way,” Hare said, by arranging for living wills and health care powers of attorney. “But the spiritual part of it, the emotional part of it, there’s still a lot of avoidance.”
Hare said she and Tullis are “not coming to this with any specific philosophy. We just want to create a space to start these conversations … to honor all spiritual, religious and end-of-life beliefs. That’s how rich conversations will occur.”
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