Benjamin Franklin once said that in life there are two things people can be certain about—death and taxes.
While people complain loudly about taxes, they generally avoid talking about the other altogether. But since October a group of roughly a dozen Falmouth residents have been putting their fears of death aside and discussing the subject once a month, over coffee, tea and cake (occasionally decorated with a miniature wooden coffin on top).
The meetings are intended to dispel the taboo nature of death and prepare attendees for the inevitable resolution of human life—that we all die.
While the notion of discussing death in small group settings is new to Cape Cod, it is not new to the world. It started in the fall of 2011 when Britain’s Jon Underwood held the first death cafe in the basement of his East London home, using the work of sociologist Bernard Crettaz as a guide.
There’s nothing wrong with talking about [death]. It is not a morbid thing. Four people said the other night that this has taught us how to live.
Since then the movement has taken off with death cafes sprouting up around the globe, offering a forum for people to converse with one another in an informal setting about an unsettling topic.
About a year ago the Reverend Nell Fields of the Waquoit Congregational Church read about the cafe concept and thought it would be beneficial to bring it to Cape Cod.
As a minister she is often confronted with talking to people about death when people have lost a loved one. “It really surprised me how unprepared people are,” she said, noting it can range from obtaining loved ones’ passwords for various accounts to trying to put together a trust. “If you do this all beforehand, then those last days with a parent or a loved one can really be focused on those last moments together.”
Understanding there was a need for this type of conversation to take place, Ms. Fields got in touch with the Reverend Jonathan Drury of the First Congregational Church of Falmouth and Heather D. Massey of Loop Road, Falmouth, who serves as the representative for the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts, a watchdog group overseeing everything from funerals to cemeteries.
People Uncomfortable With Name
All three were on board with bringing the death cafe to Falmouth, although Mr. Drury had one slight reservation. “Part of the feedback I got from parishioners was the name was almost a deal breaker for them,” he said. “It was too morbid and too over the top and confrontational.”
The group kept that name for the first two sessions before Mr. Drury broached the subject of changing it. “Literally, it was a unanimous decision to call it a death cafe,” Mr. Drury said. “Everyone agrees on merit that the name is confrontational, but we don’t talk about this [death] enough in our culture today. It feels a little bit uncomfortable at first, but once people got past that little uncertainty they found this really was very valuable to them.”
The meetings, which are open to the public and to those of any belief system, are currently being held at the First Congregational Church, although Ms. Massey said there is a possibility that could change.
Yesterday at the church Ms. Massey playfully showcased everything from a box of tissues to several books—“Talking About Death Won’t Kill You” by Virginia Morris, “Death For Beginners” by Karen Jones, and “How We Die” by Sherwin B. Nuland—to several miniaturized versions of wooden coffins, all to demonstrate the occasional irreverent tone brought to what can be a difficult subject for many. “You have to be able to laugh at it,” she said.
The three have used the death cafe model to bring a different slant to how Falmouth residents can come together and share experiences, thoughts and attitudes toward the topic. The one thing this is not, they said, is a bereavement group for those struggling with the loss of a loved one.
Ms. Massey said the sessions, usually held on the second Tuesday of the month, begin with a brief presentation on a topic related to death. This week Ms. Massey spoke about the cost of funerals and alternatives to the traditional ones, including conducting those services in one’s home. After her brief talk, more than 20 people who had braved the freezing rain and icy roads split up into smaller groups where they discussed the topic in a more intimate setting, using food as a key component to furthering dialogue.
Though providing food may appear trivial, all three stressed this week that it is the complete opposite. “By bringing in coffee and cake, it lightens things up,” Ms. Massey said.
“The food for me is an important aspect,” Ms. Fields said. “Really this is a conversation, people are sitting around drinking coffee and tea. This isn’t a lecture or a workshop. It is just people in the community getting together and talking about one of the things we don’t talk about in today’s society.”
It is such a taboo subject that Ms. Massey said yesterday people refer to death as “the big D,” afraid to even utter the word.
“People used to talk about cancer as ‘the big C’ because there was a lot of fear associated with it,” Ms. Fields noted.
Why Death is so Scary
As to why it is so difficult for people to talk about, Mr. Drury said, people feel vulnerable about death because there are so many emotions attached to it.
At the same time, he said, it is the one connection we as humans have to one another. “We really can’t say that about a lot of things. Everyone will have to experience this with the loss of people around us and the loss of our own lives,” he said. “So it is kind of ironic that we are so reluctant to talk about it.”
Falmouth’s death cafe is the initial step in breaking down those barriers, marking the first time it has been introduced to Massachusetts. Since then Ms. Massey said others have popped up in the state, including one in Boston.
At the first meeting in Falmouth residents agreed that there were several topics surrounding death they wanted more information about, including funeral costs, advanced directives, and dying with dignity. Since then the group has used those topics to kickstart subsequent meetings, tailoring the small-group discussions around them.
Falmouth's Death Cafe
To learn about the Death Cafe movement click here.
Falmouth's next death cafe is set for Wednesday, March 12 at the First Congregational Church of Falmouth, from 6:30 to 8:30 PM.
Melissa Weidman of HopeHealth in Hyannis, is scheduled to talk about hospice care.
Next month’s meeting will focus on hospice and a future session will be devoted to pet deaths.
Saramaria Allenby of Overlook Circle, Waquoit, has attended every meeting with her 87-year-old father-in-law H. Alfred Allenby of Fells Road, Woods Hole, who offers a unique perspective that has nothing to do with his age. “He watched his whole family drown in 1949 in Nantucket Sound in a family boating accident,” Ms. Allenby said. “A storm had come up and his parents, brother, his sister, her husband and girlfriend all died. He survived with the boat captain. Nine people of the 11 on the boat died.”
Ms. Allenby also has a personal interest in the subject, having previously worked as a chaplain intern in a nursing home in New York City. Although she currently is a mother to two children, she said, she would one day like to return to chaplaincy in a hospice setting.
Her reaction to the death cafes? “It is very cool because we’re all going to die,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with talking about it. It is not a morbid thing. Four people said the other night that this has taught us how to live.
“There is a value in really realizing how finite our mortal existence is,” she continued. “It really makes you pay attention and makes me be that more in love with my 6- and 10-year-olds—who drive me crazy because they are 6 and 10—because no one knows the time of our deaths. You really say to yourself, ‘Wow, I really appreciate this tiny little life of mine.’ ”