By Kathryn White
When I run into someone who wants to talk about a recent topic in The Gray Zone I like to ask, in turn, about their ideas for the column. And so it went one day at Convivio Café on West 38th Avenue.
“How about writing about death cafes?” my neighbor Judy suggested. “Google it and let’s talk.” Swiss sociologist and ethnologist Bernard Crettaz began hosting “cafés mortels” after his wife, anthropologist Yvonne Preiswerk, died in 1999.
In the U.K. a little over a decade later, Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid formalized the concept by creating Death Cafe, a volunteer-led social franchise to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
Death cafes are guided get-togethers — often between strangers — to discuss topics connected to death. Since 2011, Death Cafe has hosted over 15,000 death cafes in 83 countries. When I met back up with Judy (who prefers to use her first name in this story), it became clear how beneficial thinking about death — and planning for her own — has been.
“I just turned 81,” Judy said. “If I have 10 more years, that’s not a lot of time. It’s not dinner table conversation. But it’s there, and you have to plan for it.”
“Unless you don’t,” I chimed in.
“Right,” Judy said. “And then you leave a big mess for people behind you.”
Conversations about death have given Judy the chance to move through a detailed list of considerations, from the types of music she’d like to listen to in her last days to how she wants her daughters to support her if she is ever diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“The death cafe gives me a legitimate place to talk about all this,” she said. Reva Tift, MA, has hosted death cafes for 10 years and hosts the one Judy attends. Tift was drawn to Death Cafe as a result of experiencing her own family’s way of relating to the dying process. Her father’s death was a challenging time that allowed her to see her family’s biases. For Tift, a death cafe “expands us to hear that there are different viewpoints outside of our own or our family’s.”
“We now have different resources for what we can choose for our body when we die,” said Tift. “We could choose to die at home with death doula support or hospice support. We could choose to die in the hospital. These are choices, if we plan ahead. When we see that we can meet death more on our own terms, that begins of a lot of discussions.”
A poignant theme becomes: Am I living the life I want to be living? Kari Allerton, a certified end-of-life coach, sees this in her work. “The more comfortable you are in understanding that death is coming for all of us, the more fully you live,” Allerton said. Allerton has hosted workshop-style conversations about death and provides one-on-one support that begins with imagining you have three months left to live.
“Who do you need to forgive?” Allerton said. “What do you need to let go of?”
Allerton and the client then meet for heart-to-heart conversations over five to seven sessions.
“People who go into death at peace with themselves and their life experience less suffering,” Allerton said. In addition to revealing life’s unfinished business, conversations about death raise our awareness about changes to state law that created options unavailable to previous generations.
For people of faith, it’s a chance to catch up on evolving religious guidance. And now, data are accumulating on the environmental impact of the growing range of choices.
“It’s hard to face your own mortality,” Allerton said. “People say they don’t want to be a bother. ‘Don’t fuss over me.’ But when a person’s wishes are unknown, it’s much harder for the people who are still living. They want to uphold your wishes. By having a plan and talking about it, you create peace for your loved ones.”
Stay tuned to The Gray Zone’s next installment to learn about a body composting conference that recently came to Denver, a local aquamation company and The Death Deck party game. Reva Tift can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kari Allerton can be reached at kari.allerton17@ gmail.com.
Are there topics you’d like to hear more (or less) about in The Gray Zone? I’m currently following legislation impacting older adults in the Colorado General Assembly and, at the suggestion of a reader, looking into local end-of-life topics and resources. Send your ideas to email@example.com.
Kathryn has lived in North Denver since around the time the Mount Carmel High School building was razed and its lot at 3600 Zuni became Anna Marie Sandoval Elementary. She’s raised two children in the neighborhood, worked at several nonprofits, and volunteered with the Alzheimer’s Association Colorado Chapter.