by Suzanne Rothberg
Death cafés are social events and an evolving trend in the United States and throughout the world. The movement began in Switzerland, developed by sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who was working with people and realized that there was a human need for people to discuss their issues with mortality. In 2015, there were 1500 death cafés in 33 countries. Death cafés are still somewhat unusual because death has always been a subject that people rarely to discuss.
Humanist organizations in Connecticut want to turn that around. They encourage people to socialize in a comfortable environment where people can gather at any diner or café, eat cake and drink a cup of coffee, and have candid, open, frank conversations surrounding death.
Humanist Celebrants Dan Blinn, the president of the Hartford Area Humanists, Anita Peters, a founding member of The Humanists and Freethinkers of Fairfield County, and Chris Stedman, Yale Humanist Chaplain in New Haven, organized their first death cafe last fall. They are accredited by the Humanist Society, an organization originally established by a group of Quakers in 1939 as the Humanist Society of Friends by the Society of Friends, that is currently an adjunct of the American Humanist Association.
Peters explained that humanist celebrant officiates at weddings, funerals and other life milestones. She felt that death cafés would become more common and popular in Connecticut as people learn about them and more are scheduled. The group planned to schedule several more in the coming months.
Peters said, “I do memorials and started getting interested in servicing those who were looking to plan memorial services for their relatives; that’s how I started. I’ve been a Humanist Celebrant for two years. The death café movement is an opportunity for people to really explore in a very informal way their feelings towards dying and life’s meaning,” she said.
“It is not a bereavement session or counseling session but really a conversation among people to talk about how to have a meaningful life and how the issue of death is on people’s minds; what to expect, what to think about and how do you talk about these issues with your family, with friends. This is why the movement has taken hold,” she continued. “As the Humanists Celebrants of Connecticut, we decided our community would really benefit from this movement and so we would organize these coffee houses around the state.”
There were 26 participants, men and women equally represented at the October death café meeting at the Silver Star Diner in Norwalk. They came from Ridgefield, Greenwich, Norwalk, Stamford, Fairfield, Wilton and Danbury. Participants were seated at five tables of no more than six, to mimic an intimate dinner party. Anita Peters was the evening’s leader and also a facilitator with Herb Wexler, Jim Russell, John Levin, and Cary Shaw.
“The mark of a good program is when participants are so engaged that they want to continue the evening. Every group was so involved in their discussions that they had to be reminded that the time was up,” Peters said. Discussions went on for one hour.
One group explored relationships with pets and why we find it easier to end a pet’s life. Two groups discussed mortality from the perspective of providing an opportunity to give one’s life purpose. Several participants had read Atul Gawande’s best seller, Being Mortal, and were concerned about the loss of quality of life as one ages or faces a terminal illness.
“We are raising our thoughts on death and dying and the way we make our lives more meaningful,” Peters said. “It gives people a broader perspective and can also be a sounding board.”
“The topics can range from very personal to perhaps philosophical,” she said. “It really depends on the group; these are small group conversations so you will not have more than 10 people in a group, who essentially are 10 strangers who come together, share a meal or a cup of coffee and cake and have a conversation that’s facilitated by a leader.”
“People come to these meetings ready to talk,” she explained. “You wouldn’t come to a death café unless you wanted to share your thoughts and hear other people’s ideas; it’s not therapy and it’s not a conversation that you would normally open up and have with someone. It’s like a live chat room; you would open up to a stranger more than you would open up to someone close to you because they might offend you more.
“There is an appeal in the anonymity of it,” she added. “You listen to other people’s views and you may gain some insight into your own and then you say goodnight. And there are people that come back. Every group is different. You can attend any number of groups wherever you want and there are different points of view.”
Comments from participants following the first death café included:
“I would value another chance to discuss issues around mortality. It is so good to do his with thoughtful people of like mind in the broad picture.”
“An endlessly fascinating topic.”
“An inexhaustible topic. Our group could have talked for another hour.”
The Humanists and Freethinkers of Fairfield County group is online at www.meetup.com/HFFCCT It holds dinner meetings with guest speakers and discussions, an active Book Group, movie nights, and their annual Winter Solstice and Summer Solstice parties and a Darwin Day Dinner (coming up in February). There is also a group in the Hartford and New Haven area at: www.hartfordhumanists.org, or www.yalehumanists.com. For more on the Death Cafe movement, visit www.deathcafe.com.