To the founders of PDX Death Cafe, there is no greater way to spend an afternoon than to sit around, drinking tea and talking about the inevitable end, and all it entails.
There’s the stuff no one wants to think about. When should you write a will? How do you pursue hospice or palliative care for a loved one? What happens after you die?
But there’s fun stuff, too, depending on your perspective, such as, is it legal to be converted into a tree and buried in your backyard? What should be on the Spotify playlist for my funeral?
“What do you do with grandma’s sex toys or three pairs of false teeth?” asked Rory Bowman, a longtime volunteer with PDX Death Cafe.
For the forward-looking, the answers to those questions and more are at hand. The Vancouver Community Library will host a Death Cafe from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, featuring small-group, informal conversations about the end of life. The free event will be held in the Columbia Room of the downtown library at 901 C St., Vancouver.
Since its launch six years ago, PDX Death Cafe has been part of a growing international movement seeking to destigmatize conversations about death. Volunteers coordinate small group conversations with ranging topics — essentially, whatever those at the table want to discuss.
Holly Pruett founded the Death Talk Project and PDX Death Cafe. She was inspired by the experience she had following the death of her father. He asked that she not host a funeral, leaving her to decide how best to memorialize his death. It made her realize, she said, few people have meaningful conversations around what’s “become a very taboo subject.”
“This is really part of our birthright as humans that we experience death; that we experience each other’s deaths,” she said. “It’s something we should and can talk about — our questions, our fears, our longings, all these things as they relate to our dying or death.”
There’s no set agenda or required topics, and no one’s going to try to sell you the hottest new technology in coffin-making. Death Cafe’s international website describes the gatherings simply as somewhere to “drink tea, eat cake and discuss death.”
Lori Stevens, one of the co-chairs of PDX Death Cafe and a Vancouver resident, said the goal is to give people a safe, nurturing and, sometimes, humorous space to talk about death. Ironically, Stevens notes she’s never felt more alive than she does after leaving a Death Cafe. People have a way of bringing warmth and a sense of humor to difficult conversations.
“It would probably be surprising to know how much laughter does happen at a Death Cafe,” Stevens said. “At every Death Cafe, I’ve heard at least one table burst out into laughter at some point. There can be tears and laughter in the same conversations.”
Bowman, who leads group conversations, is also a Vancouver resident and helps coordinate events locally. Bowman described living his life with “a front row seat to grief.” He worked in a veterinary clinic, grew up during the HIV and AIDS epidemic and, in 1997, lost his youngest brother to suicide.
Since attending a PDX Death Cafe several years ago, Bowman has been hooked. Attending events helps normalize conversations about death, while giving people the tools to plan their own deaths so their families and loved ones may be better prepared when the day comes.
“This is a very human experience,” he said. “Not a one of us is not going to die, and we just have to deal with it.”
Susan Curry is somewhat of an expert on death. She manages hospice programs for PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center. People have a tendency to distance themselves from death, she said, feeling like if we avoid those conversations, it won’t happen.
Even physicians and medical providers worry about making hospice recommendations, because our culture is so focused on saving lives as opposed to letting them end, she said.
Curry praised PDX Death Cafe for helping facilitate conversations about “a natural part of life.”
“This is one of the most meaningful conversations we can have with our family. It’s a focus on a good death versus a bad death,” she said. “We all want our death to be as beautiful as it can be.”