Editor’s note: Reporter Gordon Dossett attended a Death Cafe in Brattleboro this past December. For those interested, the next one is scheduled for Jan. 21 in Putney.
We know: death shadows life. Over a million American COVID deaths remind us, if we need reminding. Death is at the center of countless books, most recently comedian Rob Delaney’s “A Heart That Works.” At one moment in the book, Delaney and his wife agonize over their 2-year-old son’s brain cancer (which proves fatal). Delaney’s father-in-law, Richard, says he wishes he, not Henry, had the brain cancer. Delaney says, “We do too, Richard.” And they laugh.
Although often bleak and unsettling, the subject of death need not always be somber. Death Cafe embraces this wide perspective of death, seeing it as part of life, just as eating is. By now, you may sense that Death Cafe is not Joe’s Diner. “At a Death Cafe, people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death,” according to the organization’s website, which goes on to state this objective: “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
Finally, “A Death Cafe is a group directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counseling session.” Death Cafe, which originated in the UK, has spread around the world. Since 2011, over 15,000 Death Cafes have sprung to life in 82 countries.
Knowing the basics, then, and aware that the winter solstice was fast approaching (bringing the darkest day of the year), my friend Margaret and I headed out to All Souls Unitarian Universalist in West Brattleboro to eat cake at a local Death Cafe meeting. We felt a benign, vaguely spiritual intervention, when en route we stopped for a quick lunch — and ended up splitting a delicious sandwich, gratis. (How often does life give you a free lunch?)
At All-Souls, we were greeted by Brattleboro Area Hospice coordinator Ruth Nangeroni, who was serving as a guide for the event. People trickled in, walking by a table laden with gluten-free chocolate cake (made by Ruth, who was wearing some of the icing as proof), a nut bread, cookies, crackers, cider and hot tea. Shortly after 1 p.m., we launched forth. Ruth and Anne Senni, another hospice coordinator, explained that we would sit around tables, sharing our thoughts. After an hour, Ruth would ring a bell, giving people a chance to move to another table. Ruth then introduced me. I explained that I did not want to intrude on participants’ privacy, but that the public might have an interest in a chronicle of the event. I would sit in a chair off to the side until invited to a table, where, if invited, I would not attribute names to any comment. If not invited, I would eat cake and write a review of the cafe’s food.
The group divided into three tables — five or six to a table, Margaret at one — and a quiet hum of voices flowed forth. Off to the side, I tasted the cake — moist, dark chocolatey with that hint of chalkiness that gluten-free cakes sometimes have. Still — well done, Ruth! Voices thrummed. Six discussants from one table stood and migrated to quieter quarters. Time for maybe just one more piece of cake and some tea. I strode to the food table, and, about to take my seat, a voice rang out: “Would you like to join us?”
What ensued was a brainstorming session, writ large — five consciousnesses pouring forth their thoughts and feelings on death, or, in the words of one, “what it means to die well.” Rather than re-create the swirl of the discussion — hard to do without taping and only scribbles — I’ll present key themes that emerged from table I visited. People there gave permission to be quoted.
Perhaps the most common issue was fear: “I’d like death to come to me as a friend,” one person said, but many at the table feared dementia or Alzheimer’s would take away their agency. Perhaps a strategy to combat this loss of control is to write a directive, but the challenge there is determining if a change of heart is possible — or should be possible. One woman noted that she grew up with her father saying “I’m going to take my life when I’m 75” — and he died at 85. Seventy-five may seem ancient at 30, but not at 72. Alzheimer’s might be deplorable, but can we make a different judgment in the midst of it? (One person lamented: “Everyone I know is forgetting things.”) And if we follow directives allowing for death, can we avoid accusations such as one woman heard: “You murdered our mother”?
Related were issues around planning for death. One man noted the importance of making lists of what needed to be done, so that family and friends would not be burdened. How can you die a “natural” death? Sometimes, that meant planning. The example of someone suffering from ALS and on a ventilator; removing it meant death, yet leaving it was “artificial,” so talking through various scenarios might help. Certainly, though, some contingencies weren’t predictable. Some around the table talked of storing up medicines, enough to lead to suicide if the person wanted an end.
Act 39, Vermont’s Medical Aid in Dying, is almost 10 years old, yet people around the table had questions. Most centered on whether those suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s could receive medical aid in dying. Such detailed information was beyond the scope of Death Cafe, but hospices could give guidance.
And then there were some observations that can’t be grouped. One woman would feel a sense of peace if her body were buried in the Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility (perhaps most famously chronicled in Patricia Cornwell’s “The Body Farm”), but how would she arrange transport? Another participant reported a couple living at an assisted living facility. She suffered from Alzheimer’s, and he would linger in her room, shooed out at bedtime. Then he would meander outside and observe her through her windows to make sure she was treated well. And it was there one night that he suffered a massive heart attack and died.
Death is “the undiscovered country,” as Hamlet says, but a hearty band ventured forth on Saturday, trying to glimpse across the border. Future Death Cafes offer similar consolation and promise.
For additional information, see DeathCafe.com.
Unaffiliated, related services are available at Brattleboro Area Hospice, 191 Canal St., Brattleboro, and by calling 802-257-0775.