Death Cafe to demystify the great beyond

September 3, 2013 

RALEIGH — With coffee, cake and perhaps tea, Oakwood Cemetery hopes to warm the icy hand of death, using a field of tombstones as the snack-time backdrop.

On Sept. 22, Raleigh’s historic graveyard will hold the city’s first Death Cafe, an informal Sunday chat about the practical workings of mortality and the deeper meanings of the coming end.

At this gathering in Oakwood’s mausoleum, the Grim Reaper sheds his fearful scythe, pulls up a chair and becomes a regular Joe.

Terror turns to humble acceptance.

Pastries get dipped in cafe au lait.

“The idea that we don’t know what to expect is what’s so exciting,” said Robin Simonton, executive director at the cemetery. “It shows the finite nature of life, and there’s no better place to show that.”

Death Cafes have spun into an international trend in the last three years, turning up in cities from Atlanta to Columbus, Ohio. In September alone, the eternity-themed parties are scheduled in Seattle; New York; Jacksonville, Fla.; Aurora, Colo.; and Petaluma, Calif. In Atlanta, the regular Death Cafe is held in the visitor’s tower at Oakland Cemetery – home to the earthly remains of Margaret Mitchell, who penned “Gone with the Wind.”

The original cake-and-death event was held in the London basement of Jon Underwood, a Web designer who became dissatisfied with death getting “outsourced to the medical profession and to funeral directors,” as he told The New York Times. Taking inspiration from Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who started similar “Cafe Mortels” in Switzerland and France, Underwood kick-started an open discussion of all death’s messy and uncomfortable nuts and bolts: writing a will, caring for the terminally ill, choosing burial or cremation.

Death cafes aren’t meant to sway anyone toward a point of view or to act as a group grief counseling session. The stated goal: “To increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

Setting up folding chairs inside a mausoleum, with names and dates chiseled on the walls, “shows the finite nature of life,” Simonton said.

“There’s no better place to show that,” she said. “We see a lot of families come through here. Some are prepared for death and some aren’t. Part of it is not being afraid of it.”

So far, 22 people have signed up for Raleigh’s Death Cafe, with room for another dozen.

Expect to split into smaller groups and for the event to last about three hours, split into halves dealing with the practical and more meditative aspects of death. But the cafe is not intended to be a how-to session.

“It’s less about the practicalities and more about the philosophical,” said Rich Gwaltney with Hospice of Wake County, who will help organize the cafe. “If there’s anything I’d underscore, it’s helping people to embrace meaning at the end of life in a unique and creative forum. There’s something that drops a person’s guard when they grab a cup of coffee.”

At the end you may start to wonder, as did Paul in Corinthians, where to find death’s sting. And you may answer, with a mouthful of cake, “Nowhere.”

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service