Death is one of those subjects considered taboo in polite company. But recently a group of strangers gave up a sunny afternoon to meet in a Seattle coffee shop to talk about just that.
The six people at this meet-up come from different walks of life and age groups. Some work in health care, some are simply curious. During introductions, organizer Paige Lewis explained why she started, “I wanted what I wasn’t able to have with any other people: openness and welcoming of this topic.”
The people at this meeting share that desire, but each person has different motivations.
Jeanette Kiesewetter is 74 years old. She told the group she’s been interested in death and dying for a long time. She said she doesn’t want to be terrified when her time comes. She volunteers in hospice care for people close to dying in their homes.
“I found that the most honest and intimate discussions I’ve had has been with patients who are very close to dying,” said Kiesewetter. “At that point the barriers are down, and they’re speaking their truths, and it’s an honor to be included in that.”
Kieswetter says she’s not looking for anything in particular from these conversations; she likes being with people who are not afraid to talk about death.
Sherry Evard has seen death first hand, but there were limitations to that experience. “My husband died of Lou Gehrig’s disease and he couldn’t speak and tell me about his death experience as he was paralyzed, and the muscles that would make your speech wouldn’t work,” she said. “I guess that arouses my curiosity and I always wondered what his death experience was.”
To get the discussion going, Lewis played a video clip that raises the question, how do you want to live your life?
Marlaine Gray has been grappling with these questions ever since she first thought about death at age 17. She’s 32 now and starting a family with her husband. She wondered out loud how to find that balance, acknowledging life’s impermanence while enjoying life’s moments, big and small.
“It’s the little things, we built this together, and we have this, and we’re in it right now,” said Gray. “And I don’t know if tomorrow we’ll still be here, but I don’t know if that’s kind of a way to live with it."
Some people in the group nodded in agreement. “It almost makes it sad to be so conscious,” said Evard.
Death Cafes Offer A Safe Place For Difficult Conversations
Death and dying may not be your typical daily conversation topic, yet there seems to be a growing desire for these types of forums. To date there are more than 40 death cafes in the country.
The movement has gone global, too. A British web designer held the first Death Café in 2011. He wanted to encourage discussions about death, so he produced a website that offers a guide for hosting them. In Washington state there are three death cafes so far.
Back in Seattle, there was so much to talk about — the emotional, the psychological, the spiritual. There were personal stories, observations and memories. The participants shared their hopes and the things they wanted to do before they die. Such discussions can get heavy, but there were light moments, too.
“I saw this Facebook thing that said, when I die, I want to jump out of a plane wearing a Superman costume,” said Lewis, “and I’m like 'Yeah! That sounds really good!'"
Sandra Kurjiaka, a retired mediator, chimed in. “I’d like to go off the Hudson Bridge, naked with a jazz band playing and my body decked in flowers.”
Midway through the conversation, the group paused for some tea and cake. Lewis said she hopes that someday, death won’t be something to be feared but respected. Conversations about death might seem hard to navigate, but the paradox is that talking about it could better guide us on how we want to live.