Last Sunday afternoon, about a dozen people gathered at the Vineyard Haven library to eat cake, drink tea, and have a confidential conversation about death. If you had come in thinking that death was a grim or morbid topic, then you might have been surprised by the warmhearted laughter that bubbled up as people shared their stories — though of course there were tears, too, and a box of tissues passed around. To talk about death is to talk about life. People considering their own mortality are also thinking about how to make the most of the finite time they have on earth. Topics discussed around the table ranged from spiritual experiences to the technical problems, like getting advance directives organized.
Joyce Maxner of West Tisbury learned about Death Cafes a few years ago, while advocating for green burials here. She was introduced to Heather Massey, a Falmouth-based funeral consumer advocate and death educator. Their meeting led to the first Death Cafe on the Island, about three years ago at the West Tisbury library. “It’s for people to express themselves, and we all deal with death in different ways,” Maxner says. She stresses that it’s important for it to be an open, nonjudgmental atmosphere so that people can share freely and learn from one another. People sometimes have very different ideas and beliefs about death, but all are welcome.Massey offered the first Falmouth Death Cafe in 2013, only about two years after the founding of the organization in England. Death Cafe is an international social franchise that was founded by Jon Underwood and his mother, Susan Barsky Reid, who is a psychotherapist. Through this volunteer-led organization, they hoped to “help people make the most of their (finite) lives.” The Death Cafe began after Underwood read an article about the work of Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz, who organized the first Café Mortel in 2004. The first Death Cafe in London was held in 2011, and soon the idea spread to other parts of the U.K. and beyond, with the first North American Death Cafe held in Columbus, Ohio, in 2012.
“There are principles and guidelines for the Death Cafe,” Massey says. “There is no agenda or attempt to lead anyone in a direction, or convince them of something. It’s lightly facilitated, free of charge, and always offered with tea and cake. You should be able to go to one anywhere in the world and expect a similar kind of experience.” The people who come to these events are primarily over 50, but there are younger people who attend, too. The millennial generation is far more likely to plan for and talk about death than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were in their younger adulthood. One of the leaders of the death-positive movement is Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and activist with a successful YouTube channel, who founded the death-acceptance collective the Order of the Good Death in 2011. She and the other members of the collective all have profile photos that are free of gray hair and wrinkles.
The Falmouth Death Cafe meets monthly, and the ones on the Vineyard happen almost monthly, too. “We are kind of surprised that the interest is still there,” Massey says. “Every single time, new people come. People are really hungry to have a place to come and talk about these issues.” Massey notes that it’s important to understand what Death Cafe isn’t. It’s not for promoting businesses or services. “It’s not an end-of-life planning event, or a grief support/bereavement group, and it’s not a support group for people who are terminally ill,” she says. “Those things come up, but it’s not just for that.”
The Death Cafe offers a place to talk about the common denominator of humanity, our mortality, which can be a taboo subject in this culture. The tea and cake are bitter and sweet. “The purpose is to have a respectful and meaningful opportunity to talk about the inevitable,” Massey says. “It’s usually a rather lively conversation, and it really enhances life. When you talk about death, you can’t help but think about what you want to do with the short time you have on the planet. It’s a very positive thing.”
The next Death Cafe will be held at the West Tisbury library on Sunday, March 1, and will be followed by a presentation by Heather Massey and Joan Pillsbury from the board of Green Burial Massachusetts, “Furthering Green Burial and Natural Deathcare on the Vineyard” at 2:30 pm, following the Death Cafe, which starts at 1:30. In the meantime, to learn more about the Death Cafe, you can visit deathcafe.com.