There is a first time for everything. This one was definitely, quite spectacularly, a first.
I went from having never heard of a Death Café to attending one in less than a month flat, and this thanks to my podcast co-conspirator LiElla Kelly, the founder of Leaving Well End-of-Life Planning in Helena, Montana.
One day in early April LiElla said to me, “Have you ever been to a Death Café?”
And immediately, my imagination took me to Ohio City (next to Cleveland) and a place called Talkies, which which was a classic film-themed coffee shop. Not that there was anything particularly “deathy” (my new favorite word, thankyouverymuch) about Talkies. It was just that in my memory, it was a dark, strange place. A Death Café, I imagined, would be something akin to that, only with skulls for mugs and skeletons as lamps.
Now, lest we forget, LiElla is a Death Doula, meaning that she accompanies people who are, or the loved ones of people who are, dealing with end-of-life issues. Death, is, if you will, her jam. She is a font of weird and wonderful tidbits about death and dying and burial practices, but also down-to-earth practical information which she shares with a big, compassionate heart.
So, as much as I liked the fancy and folly of a place called “Death Café”, I knew LiElla well enough to suspect that there would be something much less macabre than what I was imagining.
“Pray tell, what is a Death Café?” I replied.
LiElla proceeded to tell me that Death Café is simply a meeting, in-person or via Zoom, the purpose of which is to undertake conversations about death, moderated by someone who wants to de-mystify end-of-life issues. There is no agenda for a Death Café. Each person can ask the questions they have. There are not necessarily answers, although if someone has answers, they are welcome to share.
Of course, knowing how much I love to sing with my feet and do things that are off the beaten path, I was all-in.
Why are you so into death, Lily Fields?You, my reader
The truth is, I’m not so much into death as I am into life. And one of the most life-giving thoughts I have ever had is, “What do I want my family to say about me when I’m dead?” which gave rise to this thought, “How can I live my life in such a way that they actually say it?”
I find that once I was willing to consider the eventuality of my death, once I actively consented to the fact that I was, one day, going to die, I was able to start living as though my days were numbered and start making them count.
So if that makes me “into death”, then so be it. But I love these kinds of conversations and I really want to encourage people to have them too.
The Hostess with the Mostest
Once I was signed up, I got an email from LiElla reminding me to bring dessert and a beverage to the Zoom. You see, the idea of the Death Café is to have it be informal and fun. I spent a rainy Saturday afternoon traipsing about town with my scalawags looking for just the right color macarons to match my outfit. (What does one wear to a Death Café?)
LiElla is the absolute perfect person to organize an event like this. First off, she’s got the chops for talking about death. Second, she has a gift for Zoom hospitality. Third, she’s funny and compassionate, which are two traits that, when taken together, can make uncomfortable conversations easier.
The other participants and I logged into the Zoom. (This was only complicated by an 8-hour time difference. I had to triple check that I had the right time!)
LiElla had us introduce ourselves, and then she proposed an ice-breaker poll, which, since she is a Zoom wizard she had apparently prepared in advance just in case. I don’t remember what the question was, but it was, obviously, about death. We talked about the results, and then very quickly, the conversation was rolling!
Let’s talk about death, baby…
The topics were varied: one person shared that her kids were resistant to talking about final wishes, another shared about the time in med school they had “Cadaver Day”. Someone talked about donating their body to science, which led to a fascinating conversation about a Montana law which now allows search and rescue dog trainers to possess human remains to help train their animals.
This of course brought us to a conversation about Body Worlds, that creepy/awesome exhibit of plastinated bodies which has caused so much uproar over the last decade and a half.
Someone mentioned being present with her mother in her last moments, and noticing the seeming disappearance of her wrinkles once she died. “Perhaps it was the relaxing of all the tension?” we surmised.
We had a conversation about where we would want to die, if we could choose…at home? In a hospital? I was surprised by how nuanced and complicated the process to finding my own answer to that question was.
The idea of dying at home was looked at from many angles…and LiElla gave us some old-fashioned hints and handy tips if ever we were faced with someone dying at home and wanting to keep them looking presentable. (A scarf and two coins. If you want to know more, I’d be glad to oblige with my newfound knowledge!)
Wrapping it up
The ninety minutes flew by. The next thing I knew, it was just LiElla and myself who were left after everyone else said their goodbyes (Yes, I am that annoying guest who stays to chat after everyone else has gone home!) I managed to sneak a little photo of the two of us before I signed off, too.
I would absolutely attend another Death Café. I walked away with the certainty that I need to sit down, even for ten minutes, and write out what, were I to die tomorrow, would I want done with my earthly envelope. I can do that much today.
LiElla has mentioned that she’s thinking about hosting in-person get-togethers called Death, Drinks and Directives, for people in her area to help them articulate their Advanced Directives in a somewhat entertaining way. I would die (badum-ching) to attend one of these!
There is so much more to learn about, and so many fascinating points of view. Perhaps with more conversations, my little ten-minute scribbled plan could become more well-thought out. Green burial? Donation to science? Be used to train search and rescue dogs? There are so many options that I know nothing about!
The rest, the living in such a way so that my kids will remember me the way I want to be remembered? That is the challenge of a lifetime.
I just want to give a great big thank you to LiElla for organizing this event and being such a great hostess. Also, thank you to the other participants for being so willing to share their thoughts on death. That was really…fun!
LiElla Kelly, Death Doula and your wicked stepsister, contributes to Sing With Your Feet as our resident expert on all things deathy. She can be reached via her website or on social media, look for Leaving Well Death Doula. You can also give her a listen here: