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Death comes out of the closet

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20140504-AMX-DEATHCAFE5

THE WASHINGTON POST

Death cafe attendee Sharon Filmer, left, and her husband Paul Filmer with one of their cats. Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post

Washington - When Sarah Griffith’s father suddenly died several years ago, she was thrust into distress over how to bury him.

“His mother was pressuring me: ‘Well, this is the casket that your uncle and your cousin used’,” Griffith said, adding that her father had never discussed his wishes with her. “I wish he had said something.”

Determined to avoid that kind of situation in the future, the 42-year-old insurance agent from Virginia has joined a growing number of people across the US who believe that sometimes the best way to face death is head-on, with like-minded others, over tea and scones.

Last year, Griffith began attending a local “death cafe”, a gathering, often of strangers, to discuss the long-taboo subject.

Americans often avoid talking about death. Baby-boomers in particular, having helped create a culture of youth worship in the 1960s, for years seemed more intent on prolonging their lives and preserving their looks than thinking about how it will all end.

But over the past year or two, death and dying have slowly become more acceptable topics of conversation, both online and in person.

Besides death cafes, there are dinner parties that encourage families and friends to discuss the topics over a communal meal.

A card game that asks death-related questions has sold 2 000 units since it hit the market in December. And several websites help guide people in considering the end.

The gatherings, activities and websites represent a cultural shift, said Michael Kearl, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University in San Antonio, who studies death and dying.

Before new medical technologies made death easier to stave off, dying and the preparation of bodies commonly took place in the intimate space of the family home. Then hospitals and funeral homes became death’s domain.

Now, Kearl said: “We are, as a culture, kind of exiting a death epoch that has existed probably for 70 years, where death is invisible, death is taboo… Death is coming out of the closet.”

One reason is that people are living longer, with more time to anticipate their end. Also, with the advent of 24-hour news, reality TV and social media, Americans have become more accustomed to airing personal issues, including sickness, death and commemoration of the deceased.

Still, there is a lag. According to a survey last year, 94 percent of people believe it is important to have discussions with loved ones about care of the dying and planning around death, but only 27 percent have had them.

“That’s just such a huge disconnect,” said Ellen Goodman, who runs a death website. “In countries with a strong advanced medical technology, you never say never… And that doesn’t leave enough emotional room for that old, ‘death rate holds steady at 100 percent’.”

On a recent Sunday, while nestled in a cozy armchair in her home in Virginia, Kathie Conn held a sheaf of “menus” with questions for participants in her bimonthly death cafe. What would you like to happen to your body once you are dead? What happens after death?

Conn, 59, began hosting the meetings last May, taking out ads in local publications and posting fliers in cafes and at the library.

The topic can be off-putting. “As soon as you say ‘death cafe’, the whole face goes pale, and they look at me as kind of someone from a gothic novel,” she said.

Even so, about 50 people have attended. Conn adds touches such as a skull cake from a local bakery and holds the events at a bakery, at her house or, once, at a funeral home, where participants experienced lying in a coffin.

On this day, attendance was sparse because of a storm, but Conn and Griffith answered the menu’s questions together.

“I do know that I want to be cremated, but I don’t want to live in an urn on somebody’s shelf,” said Griffith. As for a ceremony, she said: “I would want it to be more like an Irish wake, where people are having fun and telling stories. I don’t want everyone crying.”

Death cafes were developed in 2010 by Jon Underwood, 41, a web programmer in England who was inspired by similar proceedings in Switzerland and France. Non-profit and non-denominational, they came to the US in 2012. There have been 750 held in 17 countries, including more than 500 in the US.

“Death has a lot of real estate in terms of cemeteries, hospitals, funerals and hospices, but there’s really nowhere for people who are alive to get together to talk about what unites us all… so it’s become the province of professionals rather than something that’s held in a community,” said Underwood, whose DeathCafe.com website offers a guide to running the gatherings.

Although death is depicted more graphically than ever in movies and video games, he said, that is “a strange kind of death. It tends to keep us in a cycle of fear”.

But when people start talking about death, he said, something magical happens. “People do tend to talk, to be very, very authentic. Death seems to draw that from people, so people tend to share things that are very intimate… A lot of this is stuff that people haven’t aired, so it’s very fresh. A lot of it is very powerful.”

In Washington, the gatherings began in October – at restaurants, libraries and, once, at the Congressional Cemetery.

Conversations range from the simple – “How do I want to be buried?” – to the more complex – “If I fall critically ill, would I like to be fitted with a tube to provide food or medication?”.

“We talk about it – what it’s like to attend to a loved one’s death,” said Alisa Hughley, the host. “I have an aunt with congestive heart failure. She’s holding on to an idea she’s going to lay down one night and pass away in her sleep. How do you talk to her about ‘What if you can’t feed yourself?’.”

The cafes generally attract a large number of baby-boomers, especially women, organisers say.

But the ageing are not the only ones who have discovered death. Michael Hebb, 38, is the founder of Death Over Dinner, which provides a template for people to host dinners around the topic. The dinners range from Generation X gatherings to multigenerational meals with family members aged nine to 90.

Hebb came up with the idea after he happened to meet two doctors on a train. “They schooled me, on this three-hour train ride, about how end of life was the most critical and underdiscussed issue.”

They told him that 75 percent of people want to die at home and only 25 percent do, and that the No 1 cause of bankruptcy is end-of-life expense. “I said ‘It sounds like the most important conversation we are not having’.”

Death Over Dinner launched last August with 400 simultaneous dinners in 20 countries; it has counted more than 10 000 participants since. To help plan a dinner, the non-profit website provides articles, videos and conversational prompts.

At the dinners, “there’s laughter, there’s tears, there’s a real kind of facing of what it means and what they want to do about it, and making sure that their family knows what they want”, Hebb said.

Young people have also developed websites to facilitate planning: Everplans.com, which walks people through end-of-life planning, was started by a woman in her thirties after her brother died; another was started by a woman, also in her thirties, when her husband died in an accident.

Caitlin Doughty, 29, a Los Angeles funeral director, hosts a chirpy web series called “Ask a Mortician” and holds “death salons” that feature morticians, hospice workers and coroners.

Nick Jehlen, 42, whose company released the My Gift of Grace card game in December, said it appeals largely to young people.

“A fair number of them are people who are not facing these questions right now but want to be prepared,” he said.

Sharon Filmer, 57, of Virginia, doesn’t have a spiritual basis for thinking about death the way some of her friends do. She and her husband have discussed the topic mainly in relation to their 90-year-old parents.

“We both hate the subject,” she said. But attending the death cafes with Conn helped her overcome her aversion. “It makes you talk about it; it breaks down those fears.”

The discussions have also given Filmer more appreciation of what she has.

“We live extremely busy lives, and we get caught up in our daily life,” she said. “When a friend calls and wants to have a cup of coffee or a girls’ night out and a glass of wine, I’m used to saying ‘Oh, no. I’ve got something going on’.

“We squander that time, when you should be spending that time with your friends and having that cup of coffee. We need to realise that the laundry can be done another time.” – The Washington Post

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