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From Boise

Let's talk about death

published3 months ago
8 min read

Trigger warning: Today's story is about death. If you are actively grieving, this story may be too much for you.

The Summer Day
By Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Two things are certain for all of us: life and death.

We are alive right now, and some day we won't be. It is inherent, absolute. It's something every single one of us shares. It doesn't matter who you are, where you live, what you think, how much money you have, what your body looks like. Death has an eventual place in your story.

Death is the partner of life. It's our journey from the moment we emerge from our mother's womb and take our first gasp of air. Yet death is something we, as a society, don't like talking about.

It's sad. It's scary. It's uncomfortable.

Photo by Ted Harmon

None of us know how long we have. Knowing this – and we all do – we should spend our days fully present to our aliveness, right?

We know we shouldn't spend so much time worrying about the dishes and the laundry and the errands. We shouldn't waste our days trying to control, holding so tightly to ideas of how we think things should be. We shouldn't spend so much energy on being upset, annoyed, at odds.

We should spend every minute being happy, loving, grateful, at peace. We should spend every day as if it were our last, because it might be. We should make room in our hearts and minds for this simple fact. We should talk about death, so that we consciously make the most of being alive.

This is the purpose of a Death Cafe.


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Introducing...

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A Death Cafe is a group directed discussion about death. It's not grief counseling or therapy, though it is therapeutic and resources are offered. It's always free. There is no agenda, objectives, or themes, and there is always cake or cookies, tea, and tissues. Typically, it's a group of strangers coming together in a cemetery or library or church (because it's free to use, not bc of the religion).

But the goal is always to simply talk about death, and with that, to help us make the most of our finite life on Earth.

Credit Death Cafe Boise

Death Cafe started in the UK in 2011. A guy named John Underwood had a death in his family, and him and his family realized it was really hard to talk about because they had not ever talked about it before.

“They invited some family members and a couple of friends to their house and had tea and cake or scones or something, and just talked about death. Like in a casual conversation – probably some specifics about their situation — but just more so about it. And they liked it so much that they kept doing it on a regular basis,” said Amy Pence-Brown, organizer of Death Cafe Boise.

John started inviting friends and soon strangers. More and more people heard about it and took it up for themselves. Soon, Death Cafes were popping up throughout the UK and then all over the world. So he made it a "social franchise", meaning people can start a Death Cafe in their community by signing up to use their guide and principles, the name Death Cafe, post events to the official website and talk to the press as an affiliate of Death Cafe.

Since 2011, tens of thousands of Death Cafes have been offered in 81 countries worldwide. And we have one in Boise.

Death Cafe Boise was started in 2014 by Joyce Harvey-Morgan and Susan Randall. This year, its celebrating its 9th year running with new organizers Amy Pence-Brown and Tammie Sherner.

Amy Pence-Brown with Joel and Lacy of the NPR podcast You Know The Place at the summer Death Cafe in Boise’s Dry Creek Cemetery, 2019.

The first Death Cafe Boise of 2022 was held on June 14 in Dry Creek Cemetery. Usually they hold four a year, once per quarter. (The next is slated for September – I'll update you on exact date.) About 40 people showed up to the June event. Sometimes it's a dozen or so people and it's been as large as 90 people, but typically it's about 30-40 people and for the most part, they are strangers to one another.

"We never sit down – or rarely, especially since COVID, but even before COVID – we don't sit down one-on-one and have a conversation about hard things with strangers," said Amy.

Yet something truly special happens during Death Cafes. A group of strangers, sharing their intimate thoughts and fears about the ultimate shared experience.

During a Death Cafe, people show up to the given location and are divided evenly into small groups. Each group has a facilitator and they set up in a circle away from the other groups. Then you discuss about death for an hour and a half. Facilitators have a list of questions, which are mostly to help start the conversation. They usually don't need them because the conversation just flows naturally. You don't have to talk at all – some people just listen – but everyone has a chance to talk if they want to.

The conversations aren't controversial or political. It can be somewhat of a religious discussion, specifically in talking about practical matters of death, like burial and afterlife.

"But even then, people are really respectful of other's beliefs about it. And no one is pushing their beliefs or agenda or plans," said Amy.

Conversations usually start with why you came or what your experience has been with death. But every time, the discussion is different.

Photo by Ted Harmon

Sometimes it's about the very practical matters of death, like the importance of having a living will or a durable power of attorney before you die. Sometimes it's about the fears around dying, such as what you are afraid of for yourself dying.

"What comes up a lot in the fear conversations – and comes up for me, being a mother – is leaving behind children and/or or losing a child. That is probably my biggest fear when it comes to dying, like what would happen to my children if I died? And/or losing one of my kids and me still being alive, and how I could survive that" said Amy.

Some conversations are about what a good death would be for you. We can think of a million bad deaths, but for you, what would be a good death?

Another one is what do you want at your funeral? Have you thought about what you want it to look and be like?

"Some people have really fun and funny stories about funerals they have been a part of, or about powerful things that they got to participate in. Those are always great conversations too," said Amy.

Other times the discussion is about what we think will happen to us when we die, since we don't really know. We all have our beliefs and ideas and hopes, but we don't know, you know?

Sometimes it's about experiences with death – what is the closest you've come to death? Have you almost died? Have you actually died and come back? Or been seriously ill and survived?

Birth comes up often, too.

"The closest I've ever come to dying is when I was giving birth. I feel like that is one place where the worlds collide. The veil between life and death is soo closely connected, and in any minute you can switch from one to the other," said Amy. "The first time I said that out loud was at a Death Cafe. I had thought about it before, but I had never spoken it out loud. And I wasn't planning to share it, it just kind of came out. And every single mother in the circle was like yes."

The power of a Death Cafe is also in this realizing that you are not alone in how you feel about death. And more of often than not, the focus shifts from dying to living.

"Almost all of our conversations are not so much about death, but about life," said Amy. "We all realize that at some point in the circle. Or sometimes I will say, so what you're actually talking about is the things that death teaches us about living. Death teaches us to live the life that we have right now."

Credit Death Cafe Boise

If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do today?

If it were me, I'd cook all of my friends and family a big ass breakfast and spend the day telling them all how much I have loved having them in my life and being a part of theirs. I'd want to hear all of their favorite memories of me, and I'd tell them my favorite stories about them. I'd wear the same-but-different outfit as my best friend, because that seems to be how we always show up. I'd kiss my cats a million times. I'd ride my bike from the top of Americana Blvd into downtown Boise, and I would be sure to stop halfway and take in that sweet sweet view of the beautiful foothills and the city that I've grown to love soo much.

I'd think back on all of the times I felt the most alive, most in love with my life. I'd remember lying on a rock in the sun in the middle of nowhere like a lizard. I'd remember how many times I've lost my breath after dunking in a mountain river. My heart would flutter, as it always does, remembering the day my lover asked me to marry him and I was so surprised that I dropped my drink and threw my arms around his neck and forgot to say yes. I'd think about all the coffee shops and parks I've sat in writing stories, the amount of time I've spent living in a parallel universe that exists on my computer screen. I'd remember laughing until I cried with my mom and sis. I'd remember my dad telling campfire stories about a wiener dog named Chipper. I'd think about all my favorite bands and how their music became the soundtrack to my life.

I'd sit back and take in the evidence of a life lived, and I would be nothing but grateful for my one wild and precious life.

Maybe I'll do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

You can learn more about Death Cafe Boise by following their Facebook page or emailing deathcafeboise@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Marissa

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