One of the hardest things to talk about in our society is death, even though you or someone close to you may have many questions about grief, diagnosis shock, memorials, advance directives, death with dignity and what to expect as you die.
The cheekily named Ashland Death Cafe is intended to enable such conversations on a quarterly basis, but with no experts, no fixing, no philosophy, just 60 people who break into small, supportive, nurturing groups and get educated about this new — and final — experience.
“It’s very sweet and interesting. It’s nonjudgmental. Each one is different, and every one is juicy. It’s about how to live more fully,” says Death Cafe facilitator Laurel Miller, a mediator and end-of-life educator who brought the model to Ashland in 2012. There are 5,372 Death Cafes in the world.
While many loved ones are caring and concerned, says Miller, they likely will have emotional “stuff” around an impending death, and discussions about it might be threatening to them.
In addition, death is one of life’s big mysteries — especially what comes after it — and we still need to talk, knowing it’s going to remain a mystery, she says. No one has the answers, especially about what happens to us after death.
“If I knew,” she says, smiling, “it wouldn’t remain a mystery. But we also want to shine a light on that mystery … and normalize conversation about death.”
Past topics, Miller says, included the question of what happens after you die — while another was what to do when a loved one talks about suicide. Tea and crumpets are served and, she says, “there can be tears and laughter, and there’s always a poem at the end.”
Co-founder Selene Seltzer, a clinical health care chaplain, says, “It’s about breaking the taboo around not talking about death and dying and not looking at one’s mortality. It enriches your life. You discover what matters most to you. You turn toward death as a means of completing your life.”
The Death Cafe has been so successful that it has spun off the Living and Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon, Seltzer says, as a way of meeting the demand for the spectrum of other resources associated with dying.
Patients may get many of these needs met in the hospital, she notes, but when they leave, it can stop. The Alliance seeks to fill that gap.
The Alliance, she adds, is “human-centered and doesn’t deal with death as a medical event. It’s about community, connection and end-of-life experience. We’re trying in this community to actively change our relationship to living and dying.”
Through its website, newsletter, email and some classes — one called “Your Life, Your Death, Your Choices” — the Alliance seeks to help people recognize that “we’re all going to die and so it’s important to have a say in what’s going to happen to you. We exist to give people information, not medical, but what they need so people are not trying to make decisions in crisis.”
Attending the Death Cafe requires preregistration. The meeting spot changes and will be provided when people register. The next Death Cafe will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 14.
For more information, see ashlanddeathcafe.com, livingdyingalliance.com and, Seltzer’s site, seleneseltzer.com.
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.