Death Café opens up difficult dialog
Things at the Death Café were cheerier than one might think. There were tears, of course, but there was also laughter, regret, gratitude, questions and advice. Above all there was wonder and awe — a sense of reverence for a process that all of us will experience, yet few of us talk about.
Longtime Mazama resident and “death doula” Bo Thrasher recently collaborated with Methow at Home to host a Death Café, inspired by the model developed in England in 2011 by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid. Based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist and anthropologist who debuted the first “café mortel” in 2004, a Death Café is a social gathering designed to stimulate frank conversations about taboo subjects, including death.
Thrasher’s own interest in becoming a death doula — a person who helps others navigate end of life assistance from logistical, spiritual, emotional, physical and practical perspectives — stems from the hospice workers who helped her mother die peacefully at home. Through her work as a death doula, Thrasher “is striving to help make the idea of dying and death a natural part of our culture within the whole life cycle.”
“When my mom passed away I was amazed by the beauty and care with which she was treated by hospice,” Thrasher said by way of introduction in the Death Café. “I decided I wanted to work with people in the end of life. We’re all born and we’re all going to die. I wanted to be a part of that, to think about how we think and talk about death, and how that affects life and how we want to live.”
Reclaiming the word “doula” from its origins — “doule” in ancient Greek means “female servant” — Thrasher and other death doulas around the globe are reclaiming the process of leaving life behind, shuffling off our mortal coils not in sterile environments attended by strangers but in sacred spaces and homes, surrounded by loved ones.
Thrasher said that she and her fellow death doulas are “non-medical professionals who advocate for the dying, give comfort and emotional support, work with hospice and medical professionals, and work with aftercare resources like funeral homes and cemeteries.”
Opening the conversation
A Death Café doesn’t have an agenda or a theme; it’s designed simply to open the conversation about death. And like any gathering without a theme, the recent Methow Valley Death Café covered a range of topics. Some attendees shared their own stories with death, ranging from a “horrific experience” of removing a father from life support to getting to hold a mother’s hand while she took her last breath to reminiscing with siblings while sorting through parents’ belongings after both had passed.
While the overwhelming message from those who have experienced the death of a close loved one and who have had to navigate dealing not just with the body of the deceased but later the possessions of the departed is to “talk about end-of-life concerns so you’re on the same page before death arrives,” suggestions were intensely personal and represented opposing perspectives.
One attendee noted the gratitude she felt for her father’s attention to his possessions before his death; his children will not be left with a house full of things to distribute and dispose of. Another agreed: “When you die, you’re already leaving your loved ones with a lot of stuff. If there’s anything you can do to make it easier for them to say goodbye without overwhelming them, you should do it.”
But others said that going through their parents’ possessions after they died was cathartic and bonding: “It helped us acknowledge the end of an era,” one said. “We had so much fun putting stickers on things that we wanted in my parents’ house,” said another. “It was just another way of connecting with my siblings.”
Another participant shared the experience of attending a funeral that had been planned by the deceased prior to death, down to the music, the speeches, and the readings. “Every bit of it was orchestrated, and it seemed stilted to me. People weren’t as engaged as they would have been had they had a part in planning it,” she said. “It made me rethink my own eventual memorial service. I have this favorite song that I always imagined would be playing. But maybe that song won’t resonate with the people there. Maybe part of dying is letting go, leaving it to others to decide how best to celebrate and grieve with those who are left behind.”
The same participant shared that at her mother’s funeral, an aunt told her “Honey, life is for the living; you gotta move on.” She took that to heart and it reframed her thinking, not just about her own funeral, but also where she might be laid to rest.
“My family always does cremation and spreading ashes and my grandparents are in urns in a fancy mausoleum in Seattle,” she said. “But I was recently at Beaver Creek cemetery and I was very moved — it was such a lovely place to go and contemplate someone’s life.”
“Cremation is quite toxic on the environment,” she continued. “I had always thought that was the best option, environmentally, but now I’m more interested in a truly green burial.”
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” another participant said. “I have an arrangement with a carpenter friend to make me a wooden box. I want to return to the earth.”
She was echoed by another: “It’s important to me that all of my molecules go back into life, and that doesn’t happen in a vault.”
Although options for body disposition are fairly limited in Washington state, the range of choices has expanded to include aquamation (biocremation using lye and heat) and natural organic reduction (human composting). The People’s Memorial website (peoplesmemorial.org) offers educational workshops that provide information about avenues for body disposition, as well as other death-related challenges like transporting bodies and coordinating at-home funerals.
The aftermath of death is a necessary part of the process, not for the deceased but for those left behind. Organizing memorials, laying the body to rest, combing through possessions, wrapping up paperwork — all can be cathartic and help bring closure. But advance planning not only makes this process smoother, it also helps “spur good thinking about how we want to live our lives,” one participant said.
But not all of the dialog at the Death Café centered on the logistics of death and the legal and administrative consequences. At the core of the conversation was the agreement that journey between life and death remains mysterious, unknowable. Thrasher said, “Like birth, there’s this moment where you’re not really here or there, you’re between. It’s important to recognize those moments.”
Several participants described their parents’ passing — all of whom were surrounded by family and friends — as “unbelievably beautiful,” “fairytale,” “profoundly loving,” and “wonderful.” One participant said that she felt so fortunate to have experienced both of her parents’ deaths at home that she would like to help others have similar experiences. “We took back childbirth,” she said. “Now we need to empower people to take back death, to take control of the end of their lives.”
“There’s something about the last breath,” said another participant. “It sounds strange, but that last exhalation is a magical thing. It’s the transition to the unknown, the unknowing. It’s just fascinating.”