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Death Cafes: Discussing death, and especially life

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On a Wednesday evening in October, about 20 people gathered in a St. Joseph, Missouri, coffee shop to talk about death.

It’s called a Death Cafe, and it’s part of an international movement to get people talking about death and dying. It started in the U.K. in 2011 and, soon after that, hospice social worker Megan Mooney started the first Death Cafe in the Midwest in St. Joseph.

“It’s oftentimes strangers that get together to talk together about whatever is on their mind, and they drink coffee and eat cake,” Mooney said.

Talking about death isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, most of us avoid the topic altogether. But the point of Death Cafe is to encourage people to talk about this taboo topic. From plain morbid curiosity to an inability to talk with their loved ones, people of all ages come to Death Cafes for a variety of reasons.

Since Mooney started the St. Joseph Death Cafe, several more have started in Kansas City, Missouri, Lawrence, Kansas, and Columbia, Missouri.

Mooney said, as a result of death cafes, she has seen people create advance directives or tell family what they want to have happen when they die. The conversations are not only helping people grasp planning for death — it’s also helping people focus more on life.

“The objective of Death Cafe is to increase awareness of death with the view of helping people make the most of their finite lives, and I see that happening all the time. That goal is being met over and over again,” Mooney said.

Tiffany Smith has attended several Death Cafes. She said talking about these issues with strangers has helped her talk about them with her family, including her two small children. But she said her focus has been on life rather than death.

“It wasn’t that morbid atmosphere that I thought it was going to be. It was a lot different, and I appreciated that, and I enjoyed it. I left feeling a lot better,” Smith said.

After each Death Cafe, participants come together for a group reflection and then give some feedback.

“We have on our program evaluation ‘Did your views on death change as a result of attending this?’ And people will say, ‘No, but my views on life did,’” Mooney said.

This fall, students at Park University decided to host their own Death Cafe in the library. It’s part of the Sociology of Death, Dying and Bereavement class taught by Dr. Laurel Hilliker. Hilliker is the executive director of the University’s Center to Advance the Study of Loss.

She said she had doubts about Death Cafes before she attended one. Death Cafes are free of any ideology, religious or otherwise, and they are not grief counseling groups. She said she was concerned that participants who were bereaved would have no resources available to help them. But, she said once she actually attended a Death Cafe, she was pleasantly surprised.

“The majority of the people were professionals and general public people who had had loss and processed it, but who were curious and wanting to talk about these topics because they felt like they were taboo topics to talk about at the dinner table,” she said.

She said, over time, we have become a society that is “death avoidant,” and death cafes could help overcome this.

“Forty or 50 years ago, when death was in the home, they saw the person when they died,” she said. “They saw what death really looked like, they saw the decline more, and they were able to process it. And, today, it’s just a very changed world. And I think that we need to be more comfortable. We need more educational programs to give us that understanding of why we’re so afraid.”

Now, she said, we’ve outsourced dying: “In other words, the professionals are taking care of it for the most part.”

But there’s a group of professionals that is addressing that problem. The Funeral Consumers Alliance of Greater Kansas City is a nonprofit that provides people with education and resources about funeral planning.

Since, as a culture, we outsource the business of dying, FCA advocates say not a lot of people and families know what their of options are when it comes to end of life planning.

At a recent conference, the FCA offered presentations about body donation and natural burial, as well as several mini Death Cafe sessions. Marci Michnick, vice president of the FCA, said a more personalized funeral can be a good thing.

“We encourage families to take a hands on approach if that’s what they want for after death care,” she said. “In the form of home funerals or kind of a hybrid home funeral/natural burial, you can still hire a funeral director. My point is that that can be very therapeutic.”

At Signature Funerals on State Line Road, owner Cathy Boomer said her goal is to educate her clients on the variety of options available for funeral planning.

Boomer hasn’t always been in the funeral business. In fact, she worked in technology sales for 20 years. About 14 years ago, she won a trip to Sydney, Australia. While driving through a neighborhood there, she noticed a space that looked calming and inviting. She said it looked like a good place to go shopping. But upon further inspection, she saw that it was a funeral home. What she saw there became the inspiration for her own business, Signature Funerals.

“I lost a sister about 10 years before I saw the Sydney facility,” she said. “And i just thought could it be a different experience. Does it have to be a traditional way? Is there a different way we can bring funeral care and services to the people of Kansas City?”

Boomer said too often families don’t know their loved one’s wishes and, as a result, have to make a lot of decisions during a time that is already difficult. Oftentimes, she said, funeral directors hold all the cards because people just don’t know their options.

One of the regular Death Cafe meetings in the area takes place at Signature Funerals. While this Death Cafe is not affiliated with her business, Boomer said the movement is in line with her philosophy of fostering open conversations about death.

“In this industry, without education, only one party holds all the information,” she said. “So it’s really important to get some education ahead of your need.”

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