What It's Like To Attend A Death Café (& Why You Might Want To Try It)

On August 21, 2013, I walked out of my office to find a busy intersection in lower Manhattan closed to traffic. As I moved through the crowd of silent onlookers, I managed to catch a glimpse of the trouble: a motorcycle lying on its side, parts forming a trail back to where it had skidded, and — nearby — a body covered by a white sheet.  

Well, I thought, thoroughly spooked, I guess this is fitting. I was heading off to an event called Death Café, where I would rap with strangers about mortality and its discontents for an hour and a half. A friend had sent me a few articles on the "salon" phenomenon, and I was interested in checking out such a quirky, interesting, and possibly constructive idea on my own. It was my first of what would end up being many visits.

Death Café New York City is just one branch of a global "café mortel" movement, started in 2004 by Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist. Crettaz believes that in order to truly come to terms with impending death — ours and our loved ones’ — we need to learn to discuss it freely. His idea went viral, and Death Cafés were soon being held across the globe. The informal discussions, often accompanied by tea, morbidly decorated cupcakes, or, in New York City’s case, Chinese vegetable soup, take place in restaurants, people’s homes, and sometimes even on boats; recently, there has been talk of opening a brick-and-mortar establishment in London, but plans have not solidified just yet.

There is no official governing body for the movement, but the most common model is the one Jon Underwood, an end-of-life activist, and Sue Barsky Reid, a psychotherapist, developed on the basis of Crettaz’s original ideas. The most important aspect to a Death Café, facilitators believe, is that there is no overarching agenda of any kind. A loose structure, in other words, allows for attendees to, perhaps for the first time in their lives, think and speak freely about the unknown. Consider it more of an intellectual salon than a corporate conference room. 

“It’s almost like going to a language lesson, because [café patrons] are learning to feel comfortable talking openly about death,” says Nancy Gershman, a memory artist who has been involved with Death Café New York City since its inception in February 2013.  “It doesn’t feel taboo to say the word ‘death’ or ‘dying.’ They can just talk freely.”

Even in a world where the concept of “funeral selfies” exists, people still shy away from frank discussion about death, particularly in instances when it affects them directly. And, while more people are living longer and facing more protracted deaths than ever before, we still collectively cringe when we find ourselves having to say, 'Sorry for your loss.' 

Conversation, proponents say, can allow us to face the heavy questions death presents us in a better, healthier way: Would you like to be kept on life support if declared brain dead? Do you find the idea of an afterlife soothing or scary? What do you think is the best way to dispose of a dead body? How do you feel about physician-assisted suicide? Death doulas? Atul GawandeThe death meditation techniquePutting your ashes into a tree? Even if — as writer Sophie Elmhirst writes in her Prospect Magazine article on the café mortel movement — “death is in vogue,” it’s up to us to use this newfound broad-mindedness to productive ends, rather than just make it a trending topic on Instagram. 
Everyone has his or her personal reason for attending Death Café, and if you happen to stop by Hunan Café in Midtown Manhattan on the third Wednesday of every month, you’ll no doubt hear about them. The restaurant is a prototypical Manhattan Chinese restaurant: walls flanked with wood paneling, tables covered in maroon-and-white cloth topped with heaping bowls of vegetable soup. On the first evening I went, a waitress rushed by, carrying a can of soda and plate of scallion pancakes, and motioned for me to go upstairs, where the Death Café meets in a slightly quieter, more private space. The two hostesses made me a name tag and told me to join the discussion at a nearby four-top.

At last month's meeting, I met Elad Nehorai, a 30-year-old Orthodox Jewish blogger from Crown Heights, who had a near-death experience 12 years ago. Recently, he started a site called The Death Projects, where he writes about all aspects of death and dying. As he sipped his Heineken, he told us about how he recently interviewed a woman who was struck by lightning (on the way to her grandfather’s yahrtzeit — or death memorial — no less). Audrey Pellicano, one of the group’s facilitators, talked about her experience as a widow (the minister sent to console her days after her husband’s death made a pass at her) and her subsequent work lecturing bereaved women, including the widows of Special Ops Forces. Anne, a thin lady with a Jean Seberg haircut, found out about Death Café through a senior citizens' social group. She reads voraciously about death and told us that she’s decided, based on what she learned from Mary Roach’s book Stiff, that she’d like to be freeze-dried when her time comes. 

“It’s the most environmentally friendly way to get rid of a dead body!” she said. Further research confirms this, though I’d advise you not to read the description of the process (“a pressure cooker with Drano,” says one of the developers) if you’ve just eaten. 

And, me? Well, I’m human, so death has of course touched me in one way or another, but perhaps the real reason I need to talk about it is because in my early to mid-20s, I spent nearly three years as a writer’s assistant to a true-crime author who was suffering from (and eventually died of) Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It was sort of like Tuesdays With Morrie, if Morrie had been a sociopath who had harbored dreams of crime stardom as a youngster.

I thought I had learned about the ways of death before I took the job — a childhood fascination with the morose had dovetailed nicely into a teenage bout of near-suicidal depression and anorexia — but in reality, I knew nothing. By the time I quit, I knew how to operate ventilators, how big to cut pieces of food (there is a delicate dance to swallowing when you can’t breathe very well), and how to balance with a wobbly-kneed man clutching my forearm. I’d learned the names of medications, the requisite — but ultimately pointless — physical therapy regimes, and the most diplomatic way to fire a home health aide. At the time, I just wanted to go home after work and drink a beer with my friends and simply not think about it. 

Now, of course, those memories come tumbling out in all sorts of awkward, untimely ways. Death Café, though, gives me a venue in which I can talk about my gothic nightmares (hint: they involve resurrection) and the guilt I harbor over wishing, for a long stretch of time, that someone who was in some ways very close to me would just go ahead and bite the dust already. Leaving Death Café that freezing evening — consoled by other brave souls who can listen to the unspeakable — I found the air suddenly felt a little less chilly. 

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