Attending one of the Capital Region’s only roaming cafes comes with a few conditions: keep an open mind and feel free to discuss death.
At least that’s the case with Death Cafe Albany.
“My friends say ‘You need to change the name’ I say ‘That’s the point,’ ” said Kate Murray, one of the Death Cafe Albany hosts.
The idea behind the cafe is to create a space in which the taboo of discussing death is lifted, where people can come to discuss whatever they’d like centered around the subject of death.
Oh, plus there’s tea, cookies and other baked goods.
The Death Cafe movement began nine years ago in the United Kingdom and was first organized by Sue Barsky Reid and Jon Underwood, who has since died. The mission, as per the Death Cafe website is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives. 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.”
At a recent meeting last month at the Bethlehem Public Library, more than 30 people turned out, ranging from ages 14 to 80 and up. Attendees grabbed a few treats and a cup of tea before breaking off into small groups and, after a short introduction to Death Cafe by Murray, each group began their discussions.
Topics ranged from personal brushes with death to theories of what happens when one dies to end of life care to funeral practices.
“It’s really uplifting. It makes you think,” said Joan Geitz, a Capital Region resident, who started going to Death Cafes in Kingston before attending the Albany meetings.
She has dealt with the death of many family members over the years and said it’s freeing to have a place to discuss the topic with other people.
It’s part of the reason why Murray wanted to keep the Death Cafe Albany up. Before she and Carla Sofka, a professor of social work at Siena College, began organizing them over a year ago, Melissa White, a Hospice volunteer and Skidmore professor, held the first few in the Capital Region. However, when White moved out of the area over a year ago, Murray and Sofka took it over.
“I have been a Hospice Volunteer for 20 years. Most Hospice volunteers, they’ll have some sort of story and my story is that I lost my dad when I was 11 and my mom when I was 19,” Murray said.
After that experience, she started volunteering with Hospice and has worked with many families over the years, doing everything from respite work to vigil work, staying with the family in the last hours of the patient’s life.
“I love my hospice work. It helps me stay centered, to realize [that] you better live the heck out of this [life]. It’s been a wonderful gift to me and my perspective,” Murray said.
Death Cafes are a way to further that and to connect with others who may have had similar experiences with death.
For Sofka, organizing Death Cafe meetings is part of a longtime mission.
She is also a member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling and a death educator. She’s always looking for ways to remove the taboo surrounding discussing death.
Through the Association, she befriended Lizzy Miles, the first person to host a Death Cafe in the United States. Sofka also attended the first Cafe in Hong Kong and has witnessed what a gift the meetings can be for attendees. Though the meetings aren’t meant to function as a support or bereavement group, they bring a sort of comfort to some.
“Just by being in a room with other people who aren’t afraid to talk about it, you feel less alone,” Sofka said.
While she’s been a death educator since the 1980s — hosting talks at local cemeteries and teaching courses on death and dying — the Cafes have a different sort of appeal.
“I think Death Cafe is probably one of the most publically accessible ways to give people that unique chance and to try and change the stigma that there is around this topic,” Sofka said, adding, “Death isn’t a comfortable thing to talk about. Most people don’t want to walk around thinking about their mortality.
When it happens in somebody’s life to a family member or a significant other or when somebody is facing a life-threatening experience, it’s scary, it’s anxiety-provoking and it’s just not something that we’re taught how to [deal with].”
Course at Union
Death Cafes are meant to create spaces for people to open up about the topic and Robert Baker, a professor of bioethics at Union College, has found that people are often yearning for such spaces.
Around 20 years ago, a group of students asked him to teach a course on death and dying. Some had recently confronted the deaths of loved ones, others had seen it in their careers in the medical field and another was facing a terminal illness.
“ . . . there are not a lot of places where it’s okay to talk about death and these students felt the need to do so and they recruited me,” Baker said.
Baker taught the first course over a winter semester and the students asked him to extend it through the spring term. During the course, which Baker has taught several times over the last two decades, he asks students to write their obituaries and takes them on a trip to Vale Cemetery in Schenectady.
“It’s one of the highlights of the course. They love the tour and the neat thing about Vale is you can see visibly how conceptions of death have changed over the years,” Baker said, adding, “Schenectady is one of the oldest, continuously populated settlement areas in the United States. They’ve got grave markers from the early Dutch settlers [with] skulls and crossbones. You get to the 19th century where people show off their success in life by building ever bigger monuments over their graves to contemporary stuff where people have [been cremated]. They have tiny little markers.”
The same yearning to discuss the taboo topic of death can be found outside the college campus as well. If he mentions to people that he teaches the course, they often open up and discuss their experiences with death.
“This suggests that there are things that people would like to talk about but they don’t want to bore other people. They don’t want to inflict their sorrow on other people. It’s not a standard topic of conversation,” Baker said.
It is however at a Death Cafe.
The Death Cafe Albany meetings vary in location and time because the organizers want to make sure it’s open and available to as many people as possible.
There are over 130 people on the group’s email list, which seems to grow after each meeting.
“We want it to be very open and available to people. We’ve done it at the Reformed Church. We’ve done it at the Oakwood Cemetery one time,” Murray said.
There is no cost to attend the meetings and Murray supplies the tea, and baked goods, though, during the September meeting, one attendee brought in sugar cookies iced with skull designs.
“People at each meeting seem to just jump in and want to help. One person was a graphic designer and did the poster, some people bake and host, etc,” Murray said.
The next meeting, which is Sunday, Oct. 27, will be at the Octagon Barn in Delanson, from 1 – 2:30 p.m.
Since the Death Cafe movement started, thousands have been held in more than 60 countries around the world and it seems like the movement just might be growing in the Capital Region.
A Death Cafe Albany alumnus, Elizabeth Conant, started a Saratoga area Death Cafe about a year ago.
“I just find it fascinating. It’s the only thing we all have in common and it’s one of the least talked about [topics],” Conant said.
The musician and owner of The Studio, a live music venue and art exhibition space in Greenfield Center, was struck by how the Death Cafes bring a variety of people together to talk about anything ranging from the serious to the silly.
“They’re so low key and they can be funny sometimes. It’s not somber. It’s very inclusive. At the heart of it, it’s a social gathering,” Conant said.
Since creating Death Cafe Saratoga a year ago, she’s hosted several meetings, sometimes at the library and other times at The Studio. The next meeting will be today at The Studio from 4:30 – 6 p.m.
“A Death Cafe is what the people who attend make it. It’s never the same. It’s different every time you go and I would really encourage people if they’re curious to go and experience it,” Sofka said.
For more information about Death Cafe or to find other cafes, visit deathcafe.com.
Death Cafe Saratoga
WHEN: 4:30-6 p.m. today
WHERE: The Studio, 165 Wilton Road, Greenfield Center
COST: Free, donations accepted for tea and baked goods
MORE INFO: visit Death Cafe Saratoga on Facebook or for more about The Studio visit thestudioingreenfield.org
Death Cafe Albany
WHEN: 1-2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27
WHERE: 588 Middle Rd, Delanson
MORE INFO: visit Death Cafe Albany on Facebook or email [email protected]
NOTE: There will be another Death Cafe Albany meeting on Saturday, Nov. 9 at the Ballston Spa Public Library.