Death Becomes Them 

Death Café seeks to undo taboo surrounding talk of death.

"My name is Sharon Pavelda, and I am going to die," said a soft-spoken woman wearing a sheer, black, button-down shirt covered in white skulls.

"Hi, Sharon!" exclaimed the 16 people gathered in the small café room at First Congregational Church before introducing themselves in the same fashion.

And so began the first meeting of the Memphis Death Café, a monthly discussion group aimed at erasing the taboo of talking openly about death. Death Cafés, loosely structured grassroots clubs that gather to discuss the philosophical concept of death rather than acting as grief support or an end-of-life planning session, have been forming across the globe for the past couple of years.

"The objective is to increase awareness of death and to encourage people to make the most of their lives," said Cindy Garner, one of the Memphis Death Café's co-founders. "We want to encourage younger people as well as older people to not be afraid to talk about it."

The first Death Café was held in 2011 in the U.K. by a web developer named John Underwood who modeled the idea after "café mortels" that began in France and Switzerland about a decade ago. The movement spread to Columbus, Ohio, last year, where the first U.S. café was held at a Panera Bread.

The Memphis café was jointly launched by a group of women whose careers and interests are centered around death — Garner is a Life Cycle Celebrant, a secular officiant for milestones such as weddings, births, and funerals; Pavelda, a death midwife who helps families legally, spiritually, and physically prepare for the death of loved ones; Emily Fox-Hill, a coordinator for the end-of-life group Comfort Care Coalition; and Diana Brunner, a nurse and birth midwife who advocates for people's rights to family-directed funerals. Garner, Fox-Hill, and Brunner are also board members of the Funeral Consumer Alliance of the Mid-South.

There are a few basic rules all Death Cafés must adhere to.

"It needs to be safe, comfortable, and confidential. It's open to anyone, and there's no charge. It's free from ideology. There's no religious focus, but things may take a spiritual direction at some points," Garner said.

Death Cafés typically feature home-baked treats, coffee, and tea, which Garner says creates a "safe and nurturing" environment. As guests poured into the Memphis café last week, Pavelda invited them to a table dressed with a black lace tablecloth, a candle burning in a crystal skull, and all manner of cakes, brownies, and even tiramisu.

The guests were then asked to complete the following two sentences by writing their responses on slips of paper: "I could die smiling if ..." and "One thing that concerns me when I think about death and dying is ...". Pavelda later read the responses aloud as an icebreaker.

Pavelda facilitated the first Death Café discussion, which touched on the lack of traditions surrounding death in Western culture, the need for better marketing of death, and ended up in a deep dialogue about when to seek medical care versus knowing when it's time to let a loved one go.

"People have a refusal to take responsibility for death," said one participant. "They would rather have the medical community and the funeral home industry take it away."

And that is, at its heart, what the Death Café movement was designed to deal with — making people more comfortable with death and taking back responsibility for dealing with the process of death and dying.

"In the U.S., we have a problem with death-denying. We've turned everything over to the medical community and the funeral industry, because it's difficult to talk about and it's sad," Garner said. "But there are so many other cultures where the family is very involved in preparation. There are other ways to look at death, and we're trying to open up the conversation."

Death Cafés will be held on the fourth Thursday every month in the room just off the deck on the north side of First Congregational Church. Anyone interested should RSVP to Cindy Garner at 605-9270 or cgarner565@comcast.net.

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