Jan. 27 2015 06:31 PM

All over San Diego County and beyond, people are gathering to talk about what happens when we expire

skeleton
Illustration by Lindsey Voltoline

I've been death-café hopping.

Death café, according to deathcafe.com, is a "discussion group where the only topic is death; no agenda, objectives or themes. It is not a grief support or counseling session. At a Death Café, people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death."

Tea and cake is required, the website says. Emily Post would roll over in her grave if tea and cake were not served. The aim of the cafés is to broach the subject of death in order to help those of us curious about death (not as in doing it, but as in a little chit-chat about what we think happens) get the most out of our finite lives. In other venues, death is a conversation stopper.

Started in 2010 by Jon Underwood in the United Kingdom, the idea to meet up with folks to discuss death has franchised and can be found all over the world, San Diego included.

Talking about death? Eating cake? I'm there. 

I got lost on my way to the first café. It was held at an Assisted Living Center in Encinitas.

"I'm looking for the death café," I said, as I walked into reception.

"Excuse me? The what?"

"The discussion of death," I explained to the woman behind the desk.

Her eyes grew large. "Not here," she said, her voice now a whisper.

You'd think I'd walked in wearing a black robe and carrying a giant scythe. I was turned away.

I had figured old folks would be chatty about death. Come to find out, they avoid it like, well, the black plague.

Eventually, I found the right location: Silverado, another assisted-living facility a couple of blocks away. This, the event's organizer said, was the first time a death café had ever been held in an assisted-living facility in San Diego County. 

Walking into my first death café, I felt awkward. Sure, I was fascinated by death, but would it be a conversation about God? Would it be people who were dying or had had a lot of friends and family members die? None of this described me. I like to joke about what kind of urn I want. About picking out a coffin at Costco. "Do they shrink-wrap them in threes?" my husband jokes. I dream up fun funerals.

The room was crowded, 35 to 40 people. An elderly lady sat alone at a table in the back. She looked safe. Make conversation, I told myself. It won't kill you. So, I asked "Georgia," as her nametag read, "What interested you in death café?"

She smiled, looked me in the eye and said, "I'm a lifetime member of the Hemlock Society. This seemed like the next step."

Yep, I was in the right place.

Karen Van Dyke facilitates the death cafés across San Diego, but she's by no means the only person who hosts them. Sometimes she co-hosts, and sometimes others do it on their own. Van Dyke's are the most popular. She opens by telling a story about her mom's friend who had an open casket and was lying face down.

Why? Because she wanted the world to kiss her ass goodbye.

Most of the cafés I attended were run similarly. The room was divided into smaller groups of four or five individuals and we were given conversation starters.

When is the best day to die?

"The day before you lose your mind," someone in the audience said.

What kind of funeral would you like to have?

Carol, who'd been in my first small group, told me all about her husband's choices:

"When he was terminal, he said to me, ‘You know those nice things people say about the deceased at funerals? Well, I want my friends to say them to me now,'" she said. "So we threw him a party. We laid him out on the couch, set up a photo booth in the corner and invited all our friends over to say goodbye. It was great fun."

"Hearing is the last sense to go," Sandy, a hospice-care worker, told that same death café group in Encinitas (lots of hospice-care workers attend death cafés).

That means those things we say that we aren't sure if the dying know we are saying: Yep, those things are heard.

What do you think happens when you die?

A gentleman sitting next to me in Mission Valley, who wanted to be known simply as Ron, said he thought death was the last ride at the amusement park. There's an exit on the other side that's never seen until we take the ride. No one comes back through to tell us what the ride was like.

I liked this idea until I started wondering what the chances were that it wasn't Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, but instead was something like the whirling teacups and I'd leave vomiting. Either way, when it's over, you unbuckle your seatbelt and exit out the opposite side of the car—or teacup as the case may be—never to be seen again.

Back to the questions: Where would you want your ashes scattered?

So many people said they had scattered their mother's, sister's, brother's or cousin's ashes in Hawaii that the next time I squish that sand between my toes I'm going to wonder, Is this someone's aunt?

What happens when we die?

Graphic designer Jeannel King's visual interpretation of her death café experience in North Park

The Near Death Experience Association came up at all the cafés. Amazing stories were shared about the light and the tunnel. No agenda is placed on the room, so the space is safe, and anyone can talk about anything they've experienced, or witnessed, or believe in. Or don't believe in.

When Maria Carter, death café host in El Cajon, told stories about the celebratory nature of her Filipino family's funerals, I was reminded of the Birthday Shelf my mother kept in the hall closet, filled with balloons, crepe-paper streamers, candles, party favors and piñata stuffings. I made a mental note to create a Funeral Shelf in my closet at home. To help my family when my time comes. To insure they put up my favorite-color streamers.  

At the La Jolla café, I learned a lot about the logistics of death: We don't have to go to the hospital, for instance, but can stay in our home when we die. We don't have to be embalmed or use a funeral home. We can lie in dry ice in a coffin in our living room as long as our family will have us—which reminds me of that saying, "House guests and fish go bad after four days." Let's hope it's never "Aunt Martha and fish."

Where would you like to be when you die?

"Puppy farm," a La Jolla attendee replied. 

At 30 years old, Taylor was the youngest attendee I met at the Encinitas death café. She was attending, she said, because it was the sixth anniversary of her fiancé's death and a death café seemed like the right place to be. The question our group pulled was, What do you think happens after death?

"The mystery of the afterlife is humbling," she answered.


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