The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed death and dying to the forefront of many Americans’ lives, but for almost a decade thousands across the world have met to talk about death at what’s known as a Death Cafe. Before the pandemic shut down large gatherings, WBFO’s Tom Dinki attended the most recent Buffalo Death Cafe, and heard why some are longing to openly discuss their own mortality.
One night in late January, a couple dozen strangers met at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Buffalo. They gathered in the church’s 19th century Gothic chapel. There were candles, some ambient music and coffee.
They were there to talk about death.
“I think the more that we can talk about death, the more we can familiarize ourselves with it, the less we feel alone and the less we feel exiled from connecting with others,” said Morgan Dunbar.
Dunbar and her husband Macnore Cameron are the organizers of Buffalo Death Cafe, which has been meeting since 2018 through the couple's Threshold Society of Western New York.
The Death Cafe model was started in the United Kingdom in 2011 by Jon Underwood, who was inspired by the ideas of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. There’s now been more than 10,000 of these Death Cafe meetings across 71 countries, according to the official Death Cafe website.
There’s no set agenda for Death Cafes, as per the official Death Cafe guidelines, and Dunbar and Macnore oblige with their Buffalo Death Cafe. Conversations are free flowing. Attendees discuss end-of-life care, funeral and burial wishes, and yes, what might happen after we die.
At their January Death Cafe, Kobe Bryant was a topic of discussion. The retired NBA star had died in a helicopter crash just three days prior.
“These traumatic deaths are so shocking that they shock people’s systems into being grateful,” Dunbar said. “And sometimes the fear surrounding that, too, like, ‘I can't believe this, I don't want this to happen to me.’ That makes some people want to reach out to groups like Death Cafe and be heard about those fears and concerns.”
Of course, the coronavirus and New York’s ban on large gatherings means Buffalo Death Cafe can no longer meet, at least not in person. Organizers were discussing holding a virtual Death Cafe, but for now are encouraging members to join other region’s virtual Death Cafe’s.
Dunbar said it’s a shame, too, considering now may be the perfect time to confront our own mortality.
“This horrifying situation that we find ourselves in is also an excellent opportunity for us to grow as a culture and to start taking on issues surrounding our mortality that otherwise we would never do voluntarily,” she said.
Dunbar has also seen the pandemic impact she and other’s work in community death care.
Dunbar is a certified death doula, comforting mostly mothers going through perinatal bereavement. She and her husband lost their own son after a stillbirth in 2016. A state investigation later found that their midwife failed to document Dunbar’s vital signs and appropriately monitor her baby’s heart rate, The Herald Tribune reported.
Dunbar noted COVID-19 and social distancing have made many traditional ideas of grieving — like sitting with a loved one on their deathbed and holding a large funeral — impossible.
“Maybe we're not going to have the burial that we wanted, maybe we're not going to be able to have the home funeral that we wanted, maybe there will be very little in the way of anything that looks familiar to us,” she said. “How are we going to respond to that?”
Many wanted to discuss funerals and burials at January’s Buffalo Death Cafe, like Angie Conti, who has attended since its inception. The 31-year-old said she wanted to join the funeral industry and even got certified as a crematory operator after attending “one too many bad funerals.”
Although she no longer wants to work in the funeral industry, Conti said she would like to eventually help families have safe, three-to-five-day home funerals, as opposed to the more rushed, impersonal funerals she’s experienced.
“We've been conditioned over time to think of them as a very fast process. The wake, two or three hours. The funeral, a half hour. And then we're done. But it takes so much more time than that,” she said.
She feels it’s important to have an open dialogue about death.
“Our society doesn't like to talk about this, and when we do talk about it, it's rush, rush, rush, and then we're on to the next subject,” she said. “So it's really nice to just gather with people that are feeling strong enough to open up themselves.”
Another attendee, Cristina Lodico, 26, opened up the group about her grandfather’s death in 2016. She called it “empowering.”
“It makes you a little bit vulnerable, but it feels good to be able to have a safe space to hear other people's opinions on what they've been through and how they personally feel about death,” she said.
Her cousin, Bri Nickerson, 25, discussed her desire to get her family to begin their end-of-life planning.
“People don't really want to talk about it until they have to talk about it, but sometimes we don't get that time to talk about it,” she said. “I feel like planning about it when you're able to and you're in your right mind, is really important for those who are left behind. So they don't have to be thinking about that. It's already planned for and they can just grieve and celebrate your life.”
It was Donna Dudek’s first time at Death Cafe. The 61-year-old was attracted to the idea of discussing death openly, instead of as some sort of taboo subject.
“It's part of our human experience,” she said. “We can’t stick our head in the ground and pretend it's not going to happen.”
And she was open to discussing her own ideas of what happens after death.
“I think that we are energy and that energy goes into something,” she said. “Our body is our shell that we lose, but the energy, I believe, goes on, hopefully to good things. … There's something else out there, we just don't know. I like to be optimistic about it that it's a good thing.”
The wide range in ages, life experiences and beliefs at Death Cafe is something Dunbar is proud of.
“It's not usual for a 70-year-old person to be talking to 19- or 20-year-old, but that happens here,” she said. “And we can develop empathy for each other by having these interactions.”
Ultimately, Dunbar hopes Death Cafe makes people more “death conscious.”
“We have the opportunity to look at that and not be so afraid of it, but recognize that it is an inevitability, and that you can do it with a curious mind instead of wracked by fear,” she said. “So to enter into that mystery with curiosity, I think, is the goal.”