With smiles, laughter and cake, you might think a gathering at the Olathe Public Library was a birthday party. It was actually about the other end of the spectrum — death.
The organizers of the Death Cafe, which had its third meeting Feb. 5, don’t want to bring down your day but rather want to demystify and destigmatize issues surrounding death.
“I just want to offer an open safe place for people to talk about death. It can go in any way they want it to go,” said organizer Heather Schaller.
“Some people don’t feel comfortable sharing with their family. I want them to still be able to talk about it. It shouldn’t be such a taboo subject; it’s the one thing that will connect us all as humans.”
This particular meeting, attended by eight people, kicked off with a discussion of death rituals in different parts of the world, from Tibet to Ghana. The group also chatted about genetic testing for serious diseases and what they’d do if they knew what day they were going to die.
Practical issues also came up. One person shared a story of how a family had trouble getting access to a deceased person’s accounts because they’d done all their billing online. Other topics were do-not-resuscitate orders and what happens when someone dies without a will.
“It’s uncomfortable. I don’t know that anybody’s ever truly ready for it. People in hospice, they might be ready, but their kids aren’t. I think it’s uncomfortable to admit that we won’t be here one day,” Schaller said.
“People don’t like to be sad, and often, death makes us feel sad. Some people, maybe they’ve experienced a loss and they don’t want to talk about it, because it makes them sad, but further down the line, it compounds.”
Schaller, who works as a funeral pre-plan director for Penwell-Gabel, says she wants to avoid any perception of a sales pitch.
“I want the Death Cafe to be a discussion group so there’s a lot of input from the community and (they can) see that people have been through similar things.”
The idea for the group came from Lee Ottman, 92, who recently moved back to the area after living in California and other places for the last few decades. She first heard of the idea when she was on the board for a Friends of the Library group in the San Diego area.
“Most people I find think that if they avoid it it’ll go away. I say, ‘Maybe you can cheat a little on your taxes and get away with it, but you are not going to be able to avoid death; it’s inevitable,’” Ottman said.
Ottman and Schaller get the discussion going, but anyone in the group can pose a question or bring up a topic.
“I think I’m continually amazed at all the different viewpoints and questions people have. … There’s a lot of misconceptions about death and what funeral homes do and don’t do,” Schaller said.
Ottman gets annoyed when people use euphemisms such as “kicking the bucket” or “buying the farm” instead of being more blunt about death.
When someone dies without having made any arrangements or even making his or her wishes clear, “it’s so hard on the family,” Ottman said. “We talk about it and try to take any fear of talking about it out of people. That’s the only thing you can do, really.”
The next meeting of the Death Cafe is 4 p.m. May 7 at the downtown branch of the Olathe Public Library.