Appreciating life at Death Cafe

05/23/2014 9:00 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Question: What awaits us after we draw our last breath?

And: Are there alternatives to burial or cremation?

And: When you’re offered a brownie at the Death Cafe, should you eat it?

All good questions and sure conversation-starters at Death Cafe, which might sound like an artery-clogging greasy spoon but is actually an opportunity to discuss a potentially scary subject.

The motto could be “let’s talk about death.”

Death Cafe’s organizers describe the phenomenon as a “group-directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes.” Based on the cafe mortel movement in Switzerland and France, Death Cafe is a “social franchise” started in a Web designer’s basement in England in 2011 and has since crossed the ocean.

Appropriately, in time for Memorial Day weekend, a new Death Cafe just sprouted in Kansas City.

The goal: to help people make the most of their lives, their “finite” lives, by giving them a chance to discuss their mortality — something family and friends often refuse to contemplate.

“Talking about sex won’t cause you to be pregnant, and talking about death won’t cause you to die,” said social worker Megan Mooney, to borrow a line she’s heard other Death Cafe hosts use.

Mooney introduced Missouri’s first Death Cafe in March 2013, in St. Joseph (at Cafe Pony Espresso). The only one in Kansas is in Lawrence and started this year.

The meetups now take place in about 900 locations around the world, typically in coffee shops or restaurants but also homes, churches and, yes, cemeteries.

In Kansas City, the one and only Death Cafe at the moment convenes in a funeral home. Signature Funerals and Cremation is in a strip center on State Line Road near 81st Street, nestled between a Chinese restaurant and a phone store.

Inside, the place has a boutique-y feel, with couches, easy chairs and coffee tables. This Death Cafe’s facilitator, Jill Badell, is a funeral director here. She’s 28. Her parents died when she was young. Then she was adopted.

Between her birth family and her adoptive one, she has seen several grandparents die.

“I went to a lot of funerals growing up,” she said. “I think it was always around me.” Each death made her feel more anxious.

After hearing about Death Cafe, she attended meetings in Kansas City and St. Joseph. A Death Cafe that started here last year is no longer affiliated with the organization. Badell says that when she went, most of the people were hospice workers.

So Badell launched her own Death Cafe in April. The group’s second meeting was Thursday evening, with a dozen in attendance, including a few repeat participants. About half work in what you might call the death industry.

Death Cafe has only a few rules. One is that the event must be “free from ideology” — participants aren’t to be led to certain conclusions about, say, life after death. No proselytizing or selling — Badell won’t try to sell you a funeral plan.

The best rule? Refreshments are required. (Food sustains life, as Death Cafe’s founder has pointed out.)

After some introductory remarks and a preliminary idea to ponder — “Before I die I want to … ” — the participants were split into two small groups. About a half-hour later, the groups were shuffled.

Attendees, mostly women, could refer to a handout for questions, but once conversations started, those usually weren’t necessary. Among the topics explored:

Wills, and deciding to whom to leave possessions. Vickie Mears of Independence, director of grief support services at Crossroads Hospice, says it’s surprising how many old couples she meets assume they’ll die together.

“I think that some denial is in all of us, to degrees,” she said. “We haven’t died before. ‘I know everybody dies, but I’m just not sure it’s going to happen to me.’”

Mears added later that her mother died when she was 10, though no one had told her of her mom’s cancer. “I didn’t get any grief support,” she said. “If you’re a child and you’re in motion, you don’t get it.”

Being comfortable with death. Mooney, the St. Joseph Death Cafe host, does end-of-life research for the University of Missouri. She lives across the street from a cemetery, which she has visited daily since childhood. “It’s my peaceful spot. It’s my place I go to to collect my thoughts.”

When she was in seventh grade, she wanted to be a mortician. Since high school, several friends her age have died unexpectedly.

Mooney is a mover in the Death Cafe organization. She manages Death Cafe’s Facebook page and meets with founder Jon Underwood twice a month by Skype. She’ll go to Hong Kong in June to talk about Death Cafe at an international bereavement conference and help launch Hong Kong’s first Death Cafe.

Death in a small town. Janna Cash Gilner of Overland Park, who works at Solace House, a grief counseling center, recently attended an adult Sunday school class in her hometown of Troy, Kan. There, a woman talked for 15 minutes about the recent death of her husband. “No one looked uncomfortable,” Gilner said. They just listened.

Maybe it was because “everybody’s related” in Troy, but Gilner isn’t sure she’d have that experience in Kansas City.

Grief and regret. Robert Wood of Kansas City, an IT specialist, said his stepfather, “my dad for 40 years,” died last October. Perhaps because their relationship was strained toward the end, Wood found himself remembering a younger version of his stepdad. At a Day of the Dead party, he brought a Polaroid picture and a can of Coors Light in his stepdad’s honor.

Another participant said she frequently talks to the nephew who died as a newborn, sometimes out loud, sometimes in her head. She worried that because the baby never left the hospital, he’d never be acknowledged. But for his birthday and Christmas, the family gives presents in his name to needy children.

This year, he would have turned 5.

Fear of dying. “I’m more scared to lose somebody than to fear my own death, I know that,” said Badell, the Kansas City host.

Wood fears a lengthy debilitating illness. He’s frightened about the possibility of it happening to his mom.

At the end of the meeting, not quite two hours later, Badell reconvened the large group and asked for feedback.

“It’s nice to be in a setting where the discussion is not labeled ‘morbid,’” said Rita Berry of Kansas City, who works as a counselor at a hospital.

“Yeah, there was a lot of laughter,” somebody chimed in.

A pause. “Did anybody else cry besides me?” a woman asked.

The answer to that question was yes.

To reach Tim Engle, call 816-234-4779 or send email to tengle@kcstar.com.

DEATH CAFE KC

The next meeting of the Kansas City Death Cafe will be June 26. To reserve a spot, visit deathcafe.com/deathcafe/769 or email Jill Badell, jbadell@signaturefunerals.com.

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