Center for Interfaith Cooperation

Hoosiers of Many Faiths in Community

A report from a Death Café: No need to be afriad

“People don’t need to fear death or dying. Death is inevitable. Everyone is going to die. If or when people start accepting this fact, everyone can start living a much happier, more fulfilling life.”
Death Cafe cards

The Death Café is bringing awareness and acceptance about death to anyone and everyone. The group’s goal is to let conversation and discussion flow openly while enjoying hot tea and cake. These events are held around the United States, by different hosts under the Death Café organization. Here in Indianapolis, the Death Café is held in different coffee shops and community centers, making the events easily accessible and open to all who stop in. These events are held to allow people to openly talk about and to share their stories and beliefs about death. Although the main population at these events is Pagan, everyone is invited to discuss and bring their own ideas of death to the table.

The Pagan community has over one million members in the United States. Although this is a considerable number, the community in a whole is very small compared to other religions. This religious group views death in a more positive light. Death should be a celebration. Some believe death is a new beginning or even the next phase of life instead of an ending. The believers who view death as the next phase of life believe that when someone dies, they go into an afterlife. Whether that be Hades or Summerland or Valhalla depends on the individual. Their friends and family try to make that transition as comfortable as possible. Most Pagans believe death is sacred and that those who die should be honored. Some feel that placing their loved ones in a box and burying them can be disrespectful. That’s why a green burial is popular in the community. A green burial is burying a body in the ground without embalming it and without being placed in a coffin. Another preference over the custom of burial in the United States is cremation. Many funeral homes won’t even consider a green burial, leaving families left in unsatisfying and disheartening circumstances. Many families travel with their deceased loved ones to find a funeral home that will fulfill their wishes. Although there are struggles with finding the right burial processes that align with the deceased and their families’ wishes, Pagans are open about death and everything that comes along with it.

The Death Café in Indianapolis is led by a few Pagans with the hopes of bringing death into conversation and decreasing the amount of fear and anxiety associated with the topic. Death is a natural part of life, and no one escapes it. Eventually everyone will die. The Death Café is trying to normalize this way of thinking. If the population accepts the fact that everyone will eventually die and that there is no real reason to be afraid of death, then people would be able to live more fulfilling lives. We can change the stigma about death being scary and unwanted. Talking about death in these Death Café events will help the community openly discuss their views and feelings on the matter. Bringing more and more people to the Death Café will widen the range of advocates talking about death. During the events, the participants break off into smaller groups to discuss their own experiences and thoughts about death.

This conversation is organized by the individuals in each group selecting a certain number of cards out of a special deck. This deck of cards isn’t for playing euchre or slapjack, they list topics about death and about specific beliefs and actions that would come up after death. Some of the cards read things such as, having an advocate for the deceased’s wishes or wanting to die peacefully. Other cards would read scenarios such as, not wanting to be a burden to the family or not wanting to die alone. Individuals would rank the cards most important to lease important and then the discussion would start. One by one individuals started talking about the aspect of their death that they believed is most important to them. After the first round, the most important scenarios, then the conversation would continue to the second most, third most, and so on. Each person would share their stories for however long they wished, without fear of being judged or interrupted. The stories would spark conversation and everyone would be able to ask questions and understand the individuals point of view. Each person brought their own stories and beliefs to the group, allowing for a more in-depth discussion on death. Death to these individuals is an everyday conversation. They don’t fear death, they accept it.

Some stories that came about during the event are memorable. These stories are about how these individuals accepted death of their loved ones. One woman selected a card about not being hooked up to machines. This was her second most important scenario for her death and she told a story that would leave anyone without a doubt why. She told a story about her aunt’s death. Her aunt was sick and in the hospital for a very long time, hooked up on life support. This woman was dead and not coming back, but no one wanted to let her go. One day when the family was all there in the room visiting, the doctor pulled a relative aside and told her that there wasn’t anything else to do and the insurance was going to run out and a lot of bills would begin to rack up. This is a very unsentimental way of saying someone had to pull the plug. This individual is a Pagan and she knew that she was the one who had to do it because none of her relatives would view the situation as clearly as she did. So, she went back into the hospital room, asked everyone to leave and started talking to her aunt. She told her aunt how much everyone loved her and how it was time to go. Then, she pushed the button and the machine turned off. Everyone came back in, and they were all devastated. Some of this women’s relatives still won’t speak to her and this death occurred years ago.

This just shows that some people are acceptors of death, and others are not. The Death Café is in place to encourage individuals to accept death and be ok with their loved ones and their selves dying. Another memorable story is from one of the leaders of the Death Café in Indianapolis. He is a twin, but his twin sister died a few years ago. This was devastating to him and for years he would continuously seek her wherever he went. He spoke about their unimaginable connection and how being a twin is so much different than just being a sibling. There is a connection that is unbreakable between twins. Him being Pagan also drew deeper into the spiritual depths of their relationship. After she died, he could still feel her presence and continuously connects with her through other people and possessions. He was an advocate for her. When discussing her burial ceremony with their other siblings, he told them what she wanted because that’s what she has written in her will. However, not everyone agreed and there was friction. He advocated for his twin by demanding she get the ceremony she wanted and made sure it was so. This is a part of death that not everyone thinks about. After someone dies, they can no longer speak for themselves. They need another to speak for them, and advocates, like this man, are important in keeping the deceased’s wishes. Many people don’t understand death or the topic makes their thinking foggy and that’s why the Death Café is around.

The Death Café is an open place to discuss death and tell stories about firsthand experiences with death. Not everyone is going to accept a concept like this; an open discussion about death probably scares a lot of people. However, that’s the main point of the Death Café. People don’t need to fear death or dying. Death is inevitable. Everyone is going to die. If or when people start accepting this fact, everyone can start living a much happier, more fulfilling life. The Death Café is open to everyone and encourages everyone to come in. Cake and tea are offered because death is a casual conversation and the stigma around it needs to dissipate. How else would anyone want to spend an evening talking about death than with hot tea and delicious cake?

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