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Death on the Menu

Death Cafe

Death, it’s a  subject that is often hard to think about, let alone talk about.   A movement, called The Death Café is working to change the dialogue around the inevitable event.   It’s a social gathering of sorts that started in Europe in 2011, spread quickly to the U.S. including Western North Carolina. WCQS’s Helen Chickering attended a recent Death Cafe at UNC-Asheville.

It’s a Friday night, and more than fifty people are gathered in the atrium of the Reuter center on the UNC Asheville Campus.

Seated in clusters on comfortable couches and chairs, they are here to have a conversation about death, at an event called the Death Café.  

“What brought you into this thing called a Death Café? Curiosity!”

Greg Lathrop of Third Messenger, is helping guide the Cafe, which he describes simply, as an informal conversation.

“There is no agenda, other than the topic that brought us here, death and dying, what I usually say at the beginning is, if there is one question, “What is your relationship with death and dying and let that be your guide,” says Lathrop.

(Lathrop addresses the crowd)

“So what is my relationship to death and dying?  Pay attention to what you want and what you bring. .I suspect we all have something we want from this experience and I think we have something to share, a story to share. “                             

Credit WCQS
Jason Hebel, Karen Sanders, Greg Lathrop and Sa'id Osio get ready to host a Death Cafe at UNC Asheville.

(flute music begins)                             

A bit of music, a moment of reflection

and the death dialogue begins.

It’s slow and awkward at first, but soon the steady buzz of conversation soon fills the air as the comfort level increases among the small circles of mostly strangers who are sharing stories and feelings about death.

“Sometimes people may think coming out on a Friday night to talk about death is a real downer.  However, my experience is quite the opposite.  It’s very uplifting, everybody quietly walks out, as if they are levitating, “says Lathrop.

Lathrop and co-facilitator Sa’id Osio also of Third Messenger helped bring the Death Café movement to Western North Carolina several years ago.  

“I lost a daughter, when she died, I thought my life work would be around death and dying and looked for ways to make that happen, and death café caught my attention,” says Osio. 

HC:  “Some people might have a loss like that and that would be the last thing they would want to connect with, why the opposite for you?”

“I had a transforming experience, walking into hospitals watching people dying,  and saw the compassion and the beauty, and in the hospice staff and  I realized there is a whole world I wasn’t aware of, it is such an in-depth experience that it just transformed about how I thought about living,” says Osio.

HC: “What happens during a Death Café?”

Storytelling, conversation, having the wisdom to say, like a woman said, ‘I can now talk to my children about death,’ to me that’s transforming, “says Osio.

 UNC Asheville’s OLLI College for Seniors hosted this Death Café as part of a series of programs addressing end of life issues, everything from the spiritual to the practical, including advance directive workshops for the public, Catherine Frank is Olli’s executive director.

It’s been a really wonderful opportunity for people to share and to normalize these conversations that many people shy away from, so we are really proud of our programs.  So when Sa’id Osio, and the folks from Death Café approached us about hosting a Death Café at OLLI, we were really enthusiastic because that’s just another approach to this really important issue.

“It was like going to a cocktail party,”

Gary Book of Asheville came with his wife Stevie

“It’s bunch of strangers, and you sit down and after you going with we need a lot of rain and how about those Yankees, um, well, how do you feel about death? It was sort of like that, awkward at the beginning, after that, almost a spirit of comradery, and then a lot of sharing and then a lot of laughter, says Book.

Connie Olsen of Swannanoa says she was inspired.

“I want to find a way to bring other people into this place that it’s okay to talk about and plan for, so this was wonderful,” says Olsen.

HC: Did you learn anything that you’re going to take away from this experience?

“I want to have a good obituary picture made! (laughs) “says Olsen.

A survey by the nonprofit organization, The Conversation Project   found 90 percent of people polled said talking with loved ones about end-of-life care is important, but only around 30 percent said they had actually the talk.    

Perhaps presenting the end of life in the café like setting, where it is served alongside curiosity, comradery and laughter,  may help more people feel comfortable having a conversation about death.

For WCQs news, I’m Helen Chickering

 UNC Asheville’s OLLI College for Seniors is hosting another   Death Café on Friday, February 17, 2017.

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.