Coffee & Death on the Agenda

Written by Jim Fitzgerald on . Posted in News Our Town.


A local group fosters conversations about death and dying

It can be tough to get a conversation going if you want to talk about the late stages of dementia, your last will and testament or the recent passing of your mother.

“When you’re at a cocktail party and you lead off by saying, ‘What do you think about death?’ it’ll be, ‘C’mon, man, it’s a party! Chill out!’ says Len Belzer, a retired radio host from Manhattan.

Belzer is among a growing number of people around the world who are interested enough in death to gather in small groups in homes, restaurants and churches to talk about it.

The gatherings, known as Death Cafes, provide places where death can be discussed comfortably, without fear of violating taboos or being mocked for bringing up the subject.

Organizers say there’s no agenda other than getting a conversation started – and that talking about death can help people become more comfortable with it and thereby enrich their lives.

“Most people walking down the street, they’re terrified of death,” said Jane Hughes Gignoux, 83, an author who leads Death Cafe gatherings at her Manhattan apartment. “But if you think of death as part of life and let go of the fear, you think more about living your life well.”

Jon Underwood, who organized the first Death Cafe in London two years ago, said he was inspired by death discussions pioneered by Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist. The first Death Cafe in the U.S. was held in Columbus, Ohio, last year, and “It’s just kind of snowballed,” he said, estimating nearly 300 Death Cafes have been held in the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Portugal, Brazil and Singapore.

Subjects commonly brought up at Death Cafes range from financial planning to suicide. They include cremation, memorial services, loved ones’ last moments and the possibility of an afterlife.

Underwood and other organizers emphasize that the discussions are not meant to be counseling. “There’s no guest speaker, no materials, because we’re not guiding people to any conclusions.”

And while the sessions attract a wide range of religions, races and ages, organizers note there are more people 50 and above than in their 20s.

The Rev. Mark Bozzuti-Jones, who arranged for Death Cafes to be held at Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, said the discussion should be open to all views, regardless of whether they conform to religious teachings.

“I suspect every person probably has a different understanding of death, the afterlife, no afterlife,” Bozzuti-Jones said. “The different views may provide some form of healing.”

Kushner said he doesn’t need any firm answers to benefit from Death Cafes.

“I like the idea that we live with this great mystery,” he said. “Wouldn’t life be boring without it?”

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