By Parker Barry
“Are you scared of death? Great, let’s talk about that. Are you intrigued by death? Great, let’s talk about that! There is no agenda at a Death Cafe. All voices are welcome. There will likely be laughter and there might be tears. But there will definitely be cake!” the T-Town Death Cafe website says.
Death is a subject we tend to draw a curtain over, often using humor or silence to avoid it. This can sometimes feel a bit ironic given the fact that the one thing you should be sure of, by being a person, is that you will die.
On the first Tuesday of every month at the Rustic Aristocrat cafe on 21st, Kelli Barr-Lyles, a grief counselor, gerontologist and certified midwife hosts “Death Cafe,” where that curtain is drawn back.
“It is really simply the idea of people coming, saying whatever they want to say, and it is safe. It’s a safe place to come and talk about death, talk about grief; we laugh a lot at Death Cafe. We laugh a lot. People don’t put those things together. We have fun here,” Barr-Lyles said.
The Death Cafe movement was started in Britain in 2011 by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid and has since blown up to 6,057 Death Cafes in 56 countries.
“They are all over the world. People are coming together in cities all around the world and doing this, which is beautiful to me — especially in America. We just don’t do it here. We don’t talk about it. In other cultures when somebody dies it’s a big deal,” Barr-Lyles said.
There was chocolate coconut cake that was absolutely delicious and everyone, about 15 people, sat around a long table with our paper plates and discussed death to varying degrees. Barr-Lyles would often interject with her wisdom and experience. People talked about the loss of their loved ones, about seeing people die in the hospital, about watching someone give birth and witnessing the start of life.
Around 80 percent of the people in the group were wearing all black, including myself. Despite this, the group didn’t feel dark. There was a feeling of interconnectedness, of bonding through this unavoidable part of the human existence. There was laughter over our thin understanding of our own mortality. Despite the welcoming environment I was glad I went alone; bringing a pre-made friend along, I believe, would have muddled my perception of the group’s intent.
I was the youngest in the group and most members were over the age of 30. Our age differences made sense because the closer you come to facing your own mortality, the more you must realize that you have to process it. Although death is something that everyone has to face, it is also something that needs to be processed when you are ready. Everyone at the Death Cafe talked about their relationship with death; we went around in a circle and told the group why we were there. The introductions were a sort of validation that it is okay to realize that humanity is mortal.
“I actually have an app called WeCroak; it sends you this message [reminding you that you’re going to die] five times a day and it’s random. Because the Bhutan people in their country meditate on death five times a day and they are one of the happiest groups of people in the world. It is the coolest thing because you’ll have a really stressful day and think, ‘Right, none of this matters,’” Barr-Lyles said.
Every attendee had a unique background and relationship with death. There were some emergency medical technicians, some doulas and midwives, some nurses, some people who have lost spouses of decades, and a man who had to face his own mortality when he thought he had terminal lung cancer. There was even a medical examiner, whose job it is to investigate the causes of death under suspicious or unusual circumstances. There was surprisingly very little discussion of the after-life, although some people talked about having had contact with loved ones who had passed away.
One man, an ex-firefighter, made the point that there isn’t a problem in the world that love couldn’t solve; if you love hard enough you can work through anything. It was a beautiful sentiment from a manmade hardened by his career.
People shared how they cope with loss and with witnessing death and tragedy. A layer of humor hung in the room as a sort of guiding friend to the discussion. I did not feel out of place because of the welcoming aura of the group but also because of my own relationship with death, having loved ones who have died and also having an interest in philosophy and the human condition. The Death Cafe was an amazing experience but one that I would encourage others not to take lightly. It was a moment of wrapping my mind around the intricacies of life through the process of accepting its end.