Death Café gatherings give a public forum to a private subject

November 9, 2018

Sonia Reed has always been comfortable with the subject of death.

As a child, she learned to ride her bike in the cemetery by her house.

“It’s something my family has been very upfront about, so it wasn’t a big leap for me to talk to strangers about it,” Reed says above the murmur of the large crowd gathered at Hahn Funeral Home & Cremation Services in Millvale.

This gathering is not a wake, but an informal meet-up called a Death Café where people can openly discuss the weighty topic over tea and pastries.

The concept started in England in 2011, and there are groups in 60 countries.

Three years ago, Carolyn Fletcher helped organize one of the first Death Cafés in Pittsburgh.

The meetings occur about once a month in Pittsburgh. They aren’t always held at funeral homes, but at a variety of sites throughout the region, including churches, libraries, museums, health care facilities and private clubs and businesses.

According to the website deathcafe.com: “People drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

“This isn’t therapy; it’s more philosophical,” says Fletcher, 47. “The Number One rule at Death Café is that there’s no agenda.”

Fletcher was a caterer and event planner before enrolling in mortuary school at 39. She spent time as a funeral director and now works for a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization.

She doesn’t consider herself (or anyone else) an authority on death, but, like Reed, she’s spent a lifetime reflecting on it. Her brother died in a car accident when she was young, and the incident cast a pall over the family.

Growing up in an environment where people were actively grieving prepared her for her future vocation.

“I like taking care of others, and dead people don’t freak me out,” she says. “Most people get into funeral services as a second career. Sixty-five percent are women, and fewer than 10 percent come from a funeral background. It’s a calling.”

Wigle Whiskey hosted a Death Café at its Spring Garden Barrelhouse last summer.

“Our spot seemed appropriate as whiskey and whiskey-tea cocktails have long been a part of Irish Wakes, where whiskey has long been a sort of elixir of celebration and mourning,” says Meredith Meyer Grelli, co-owner of the distillery. “Thinking about death is often something we do in isolation. We try to bring community to everything we do at Wigle and so, to me, it seemed end-of-life conversations should be no exception. And some cocktails couldn’t hurt the conversation!”

The mood at Hahn Funeral Home is light and the crowd is diverse. There’s an artist, a musician with a guitar, a middle-aged occupational therapist, a 20-something electrician, an elderly widow and a young mother bouncing a baby on her knee.

For the first half-hour, folks socialize over a dessert buffet reminiscent of a cookie table at a Pittsburgh wedding reception.

Ordained Minister Karen Bernard prefers delivering eulogies over nuptials.

“At weddings, people don’t really care about what you say. They’re more worried about the centerpieces and the cake,” she explains. “At funerals, people are much more present. They’re there for that person, and the family is so appreciative and engaged. It’s important to celebrate people’s lives.”

Bernard grabs a snack before facilitator Helen Stickney, a hospice worker, calls the Death Café to order. She asks all participants to be respectful of other people’s opinions and breaks the assemblage into six small groups.

Conversations range from out-of-body and near-death experiences to the afterlife and environmentally friendly burials which prohibit toxic embalming fluids and require that everything that goes into the ground - from the casket to the corpse’s clothes - be biodegradable.

There is laughter and a few tears, as well as comforting pats on shoulders as people pose questions and share stories.

First-timer Lee Caninzun’s interest in the event was sparked by “Ask a Mortician,” a popular YouTube series hosted by industry professional Caitlin Doughty, who offers frank, often humorous tales about death.

“It’s nice that we can talk about these issues,” says Caninzun, a resident of Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood who frequently visits the nearby Allegheny Cemetery. “I’m learning about new things I didn’t even know existed.”

To learn more:

Death Café International

Death Café Pittsburgh’s Facebook page

Ask a Mortician on YouTube

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