Do you know what happens after you die? Does the thought of death frighten you or pacify you? Want to talk about it?
You can every month at a gathering called Death Café, an open conversation about death, free to all. The Death Café movement began in 2011 in the UK based on the work of sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who held the first “café mortel” in 2004. Tucson’s Death Café has been gathering for just over five years. Known affectionately as “Friendly and Fearless,” it is hosted by Isabel Amorous.
A Place to Talk about Death
Death Cafés address the question, “Why aren’t we talking about death and dying and how can we?” Amorous says.
After a short introduction, those in attendance introduce themselves. People are invited to speak or to simply listen. The attendees bring the conversation. “If there’s a topic that someone brings up, we follow that,” Amorous says. Small group then converse for 20 to 40 minutes before returning to the larger group to share.
Conversations tend to center around themes such as: how to talk about death with friends and family, how help those in the process of loss, and practical matters like end-of life paperwork. Popular discussions also include the diversity of mourning and burial rituals in world cultures, and the growing number of creative options for environmentally friendly burials, including repopulating coral reefs, becoming a tree, or going into outer space. Larger philosophical questions also surface, particularly around mortality — as in, what happens to us? — and, more recently, around current legislation on death with dignity, although Death Café’s aren’t activist groups and take no position, Amorous says.
The January Death Café in Tucson convened at the City of Tucson’s Ward 6 office. Of the gathering, Amorous reported:
“Whether we grit our teeth or grin at death, the Grim Reaper finds hearty conversationalists in the Old Pueblo. We chuckled at death-busting patents of the past — like the 18th century “safety coffin,” which included breathing tube, bell and ladder — just in case! We were beguiled by fascinating faraway holiday travel tales from the Paris catacombs, as well as the closer-to-home Houston National Funeral museum, and cemeteries of New Orleans. Stand-out conversations offered that suffering and pain need not always be partners and that in the dark waters of deep grief being told by well-meaning folk things like “it happened for a reason, it’s an opportunity, or the sun will shine again,” are often met with the opposite of the intended effect. Death remains no less a mystery, but some have noted that something akin to a visceral sea-change can accompany the experience of bringing that mystery to the light of open conversation.”
No Experts, but Plenty of Sweets
Death café is decidedly democratic and egalitarian. The conversations are facilitated, but there are no speakers or experts and no given agenda. The experience is meant to be welcoming to everyone, without giving preference to any particular points of view.
“You can argue over every other subject in life. But here, no one is an expert,” Amorous says.
Death Café is not a grief support or counseling group, either. Rather, the group is designed to engage discussion around a subject that is often considered taboo or difficult to address.
“What I love is that I can sit next to someone who has a full certainty that nothing at all happens after death. And across the circle someone else can say, ‘I believe we have an afterlife.’ And each position makes each person feel more at peace,” Amorous says. “It’s so open-ended and fair. That’s why there are never any arguments.”
While death will come to everyone, not everyone is ready to face it. Amorous admits that the Death Café conversations don’t draw many young people.
Half of participants in Tucson’s chapter tend to be over 50, though some Millennials have attended as well as some teenagers with their parents, Amorous says. Attendees are often people who have had a “mortality-reality check” or have experienced the deaths of close friends or relatives. Others have professional lives working with death, such as nurses or hospice workers. One young man who is an EMT stated he is surrounded by death and trauma yet has no outlet anywhere else to talk about it.
To sweeten the conversation, there is always cake.
Death Is a Big Job
Beyond her involvement with Death Café, Amorous is interested in the ways we can prepare ourselves for the inevitable. Death doulas, she says, can provide that assistance when someone falls ill or is dying.
“Over 100 years ago we were dying at home. Today we are living with the constant news of death and tragedy, and the biggest graphic icon of our times is the skull. But we’re still death adverse and death denying,” Amorous says.
Shamans and medicine people often play that role for certain cultures, and historically, death doulas often have been women, she says.
Several years ago Amorous served as a death doula for her sister-in-law. “I was her cheerleader. ‘You’re doing great,’ I’d tell her.”
Primarily, a doula’s job is to tend to the person dying. “You see someone in their 80s or 20s lying in bed and you may think they’re just lying there not doing anything. People who enter the room sometimes speak about the dying person in the third person, as if they’re gone, but they are often ultra-present. Dying is a big job,” Amorous says.
Death doulas can also help families deal with issues that arise, Amorous says. “A lot of highly charged emotional stuff can come up.”
Amorous specializes in creating opportunities through creative means for people to channel difficult feelings. For example, during her sister-in-law Betsy’s dying, she made a community “altar” on the dining room table of Betsy’s things, such as Angel Cards that guests could choose and place on a river of white sand, symbolic of beach adventures Betsy loved. At the funeral reception Amorous offered a group honoring ritual for adults and art-making activities for children to do in Betsy’s memory. “These types of things can connect a loved one’s community through their grieving and offer a sense of wholeness,” Amorous says.
A Death-Averse Culture
Amorous holds a master’s degree in death education from Prescott College and spent many years hosting events around death and dying in Seattle before moving to Tucson.
She acknowledges that in Tucson and the Southwest there is an openness to death, in part because of its closeness to Mexico and the Dia de los Muertos tradition.
“Also, death in the desert is so visible,” Amorous says. “The desert is open and uncovered, and the cycles of life and death are easy to see. Along with the amazing sunrises and sunsets that we associate with beginnings and endings, death is in the landscape everyday.”
No matter where we live, however, we are constantly rubbing up against death, Amorous says. The Internet gives us immediate access to global tragedies in real-time, which she says impacts us on deep levels. “We have a chronic grief going on, in a psychological sense, whether we recognize it or not,” she says.
“We are still living in a death-averse, death-denying culture,” Amorous says. But she hopes her work and open conversations like Death Café’s are starting to change that.
Tucson’s Friendly and Fearless Death Café meets the first Wednesday of every month from 5:30 to 7 pm at the City of Tucson Ward 6 Office, 3202 E. First St.
- Learn more about the movement at DeathCafe.com.
- Tucson’s Death Café’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TucsonDeathCafe