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KPBS Midday Edition

Death Cafe Movement Grows In San Diego

Death Cafe Movement Grows In San Diego
Death Cafe Movement Grows In San Diego
GUESTS: Karen Van Dyke, founder, Death Cafe San Diego Scott Masters, attendee, Death Cafe

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanagh. We fear it. Tell jokes about it, work out to postpone it and see it on TV nearly every day. But we usually don't discuss it. Certainly not with a group of strangers. That's why the death cafe breaks most of the rules of polite society when it urges people to talk about death, dying and what might lie beyond. It's an idea that started in England several years ago and now there are death cafes across the globe, including here in San Diego. Joining me are Karen Van Dyke, who hosts death cafe events around San Diego County. Karen, welcome to the program. Thank you, Maureen. And Scott Masters has attended several death cafes in San Diego. Welcome to the show. Thank you. Karen, what goes on in a death calf pay? cafe? It's a place where open, curious people come together to talk about death, dying and living over tea and cake. We usually have around 25 folks that come. We have a large group first, then we talk about the death cafes and the history and a little bit about what's going to unfold. Then we break into smaller, more intimate groups, like about four or five people. Then we have conversation starters on the table for people just to kind of pull, maybe a conversation starter is something about where do you want your remains taken or, you know, how do you want to be buried or maybe there's a destination event that you want to have for your celebration of life. And what really happens is that people start talking about the question, but it goes all over the place. It goes to where it needs to be. It goes to where someone might have had a recent death in their family. They will start talking about that or a lot of laughter takes place. A lot of discussion about DNRs, POAs-- DNRs? Do not resuscitate, power of attorneys for healthcare and finance. You know, the death cafes are conversational opportunities for people. Let me ask you, so we're not talking about a place called the death cafe? No, actually, they are pop-up more. Okay. They are pop-up. It's not a brick and mortar, although John Underwood who created this in London is in the process of creating a brick and mortar death cafe in London. What a destination to put on your bucket list. As you say, in London, it was inspired by a French philosopher, Bernard Cartake thes. What's the purpose of using this format to talk about death? You know, you do a lot of amazing interviews on KPBS and you talk to a lot of authors who have written books about death. Last Acts of Kindness is a phenomenal book. It's great to read the book. You know that all of these things are out there for you to do, to move forward in this end of life process, so you don't have to deal with it again until it's time, but what people don't do, they don't have a conversation about it. And so if you don't have a conversation about something in your life, the chances of you moving forward on it are pretty nil. So if you start talking about death and all that that encompasses, it breaks the ice, opens the door. You start to feel more comfortable. I have so many people that come to the death cafes, I'm so afraid of this. I fear it so much. And by-- I make sure that after every death cafe that I go to, if I've been told that, I will go up to that person just because I want to see how they are now, what kind of transformation took place? And it typically is oh, my gosh, this was amazing. I'm coming back. Why did you want to host these events, Karen? Well, I have a company called Sar Care By Design and I help families design living arrangements when they can no longer stay at home. Part of that is Migo Migo meeting with the families, and most of the time they are not prepared. I saw this over and over as a trend. I thought I've got to educate people. That happened one week and the next week the death cafes came to me through an e-mail, through a friend of mine who is a coach and she said I think you better take a look at this. And I looked at it and it just struck me. I just couldn't stop thinking about it. And so I called a number of other hosts around the country, including Lizzie Miles, who brought the death cafes to the US, and I decided I am going to do one and lo and behold, I'm at CASA Deluge and I thought this would be a great place. I talked to the manager. Within 30 seconds, she is shaking her head yes. It was amazing. Amazing. Who comes to death cafes? Gives us an idea of the range of people who have come to death cafes in San Diego. Originally we were doing a lot of demographic -- we were doing a lot of feedback surveys. We were finding that 45-60 was kind of the peak. Ages of 45 and 60? Yes, yes. Okay. And then older. I have found now that it's shifting, in that it was 60/40 women/men. I'm finding that it's balancing out and that the ages are starting to spread out. I think that's because it's just that word has gotten out. More people are hearing about it. I was in a death cafe a couple of weeks ago and we had a woman who is 29. So 18 and older really are the folks who come. It doesn't matter. You can be someone who is just curious, someone who just has no connection to hospice or palliative care or you can have people from hospice and palliative care. It doesn't matter. The beauty of the death cafe is there is no agenda. We never have an agenda of where we want people to go. That's the beauty of the experience, because there's a certain freedom to that. Now, Scott Masters, you've attended a couple of these events. What got you interested in going to a death cafe? I have had a number of people pass and die, and I was so confused by it. For me, it was knowing that I wanted to be more prepared in my life and also just that this is a taboo topic and what a great way to explore something in a safe place. I just intuitively felt it was going to be a safe place and there's a lot of topics that I needed to talk about. What's it like talking to a group of strangers about death? Well, for me, it's been really intimate, because we are all going there. And denial hand worked really well in my life. I'm breaking all the denials in my life. And it's been amazing journey of learning about other people's path and there's never an end to learning about how to prepare for this until it happens. So I think it's just been a real need in me because in my family we didn't talk about this and society doesn't talk about it. So it was just an openness and a freedom that I was looking for. What questions were you particularly interested in hearing about discussed about death? Well, each one is different. There are conversation starters on the table and mainly it was just how do you want the last days of your life to be? That was one topic that came up. And for me, I wanted a puppy farm. I wanted to be connected to puppies. And, you know, every one that I've gone to has been different and the feeling has been different. Obviously, the topic is all the same, but there's different people there. And so I've just learned so much from other people's attitudes and beliefs and then religion comes into it, not as a way to alienate people, but people do talk about their religion a bit. And so it's fascinating to me. I will continue to go. I've shared it with other friends of mine and they have really come alive, too. It's also about quality of life. We do talk a lot about how do we increase our quality of life. Any opinions, Scott, that shocked or surprised you? I think just seeing some of the elders there, you know, 90-year-olds and they are so full of life and that to me is inspiring and I think that's been the neatest thing, is to actually be a part of a group where there are seniors, elders that are really preparing for this and just how alive they are. That surprised me. Now, Karen, do people get emotional talking about their experiences with death and dying, asking these questions? I think there's an array of emotions. There's the sad emotion that might come up. But by and large, not so much. Very quickly into the death cafe when they are in the smaller groups, and by the way, no one sits together. If they came with someone, they will all sit with strangers. So you are really having that conversation about that topic for the very first time with strangers. And it's just amazing. Mostly what I see is a lot of energy. I see fun. I see laughter. I I see curiosity. I see emotions that are opening people up. You wouldn't think a death cafe would be a fun night out. Absolutely, Maureen! It's like, hey, let's go to the death cafe. Sounds like a great place. Just like if you went to a dinner party or cocktail party and you started talking about death. You would be last on the list the next time around. But death cafes, it is open, it is welcoming. There's everything about it that every single person should come to a death cafe and -- 18 or over. Right. To have the experience. Even if it's just once. Scott's been a number of times, and a lot of people are coming a number of times. It's usually around 80/20 in attendance in terms of 80% are new and 20% are coming back. So -- but people are coming and coming. There was just one in Mission Valley last week. 29 people came in the middle of the day. That's, that's rather amazing. Yeah, it is. Now, what kind of food do you serve at a death cafe? Well, as you know, we're all tribal, and so we gather around the table and that's where we have our best conversations. I mean, dinner time for families, that's really an important time. Well, how is your day, what's happening, and that's when you kind of, you come together. So it's important. Really, I know people laugh when I say tea and cake, but I'm so serious about the cake. That's usually we'll have maybe cake or pastries or fruit and always to say to people get up. If you're sitting at the table and you want something to eat, there are no rules, it's self-directed. Get yourself a cup of coffee and a piece of cake and just flow with it. We don't get crazy about the food, but it is really, really important. I went to one death cafe about a year ago and they had gluten-free and they had without nuts. And they had all different kinds. I think you guys went a little overboard here, but okay. Scott, let me ask you, how does the discussion start? Well, we had conversation starters at four of the five. So there's a question that you pick out of a bowl or a cup and somebody asks that question and then they will answer it. That's usually how it starts. A couple of times I came in with a burning desire and just wanted to know what other people were experiencing or feeling about a topic, so I brought that up. Yeah, it's usually just starting out with a particular question. And then all of the group chimes in on it. Do you have a time period of how long you're going to be talking about a particular question before you go on to another? We don't. We don't. It's very loose that way and, you know, most people do answer the questions or pick another one if they are not resonating. Karen, death used to be considered a part of life. Now in our modern world, it's something that needs to be avoided, something that happens if you don't take good care of yourself. Do we now tend to think of death as something unnatural? I've given this some thought and I think back in the late 19th Century, still women were giving birth and the babies would die. We had a lot of births at death. People were not living as long, so we saw people dying at 50, 45, 50, 55. And so we knew about death. Now there are no babies dying, pretty much, and people are living to their nineties. So that experience of death has a large swath of time before you even have this experience with it. And so I guess in that way, people are like, whoa, wait a minute, this is not what I'm used to. So in a way, yeah, it's unnatural. But the reality is, as we all know, that it's very, very natural. No one's getting out alive. It's the one thing that every single person on the planet has in common. The one and only. We think we have taxes in common. But death is really the deciding factor. Some people will say, you know, I don't really want to talk about this. I'll wait until the time comes. There's plenty of time. You're dead long enough. Then you can figure it out. What would you say to someone who would come with that attitude? You're the exact person that needs to be here and we're so delighted that you came. Literally, I was in a death cafe one time and this woman, I think she was around in her late seventies, and we go are not a and sometimes we say well what brought you here? She said my girlfriend dragged me. I don't even know why I'm here. I don't even want to be here. So I decided at that point in time because I had a little more experience with death cafes that I would actually be a little more quiet so the rest of the folks could have the conversation. And as she was talking, they pulled out a conversation starter and it was about where do you want your ashes to go? And she was the first, decided to answer it. She said I want my ashes -- she was a sailor. She said I want my ashes to go out on the ocean and somebody else said do you have that in writing? She said no, but he knows how to take care of it. The other attendee said, well, if you don't have in writing, it's not going to happen. It will not happen. And her face turned a totally different color. It was like, oh, my gosh! At the end of the death cafe, she was one of the last people to leave. She walked up to me and she said when are you doing this again? This happens over and over. Scott, after attending the death cafes, has your outlook on death changed? Yes, it has. I think I have a lot more just peace and freedom and just knowing that I'm not alone. Other people are willing to discuss this. I've always been plagued by a lot of fear around this topic, so I'm just -- it's loose. I feel lighter about it and, you know, the mystery is still there and it's always going to be a mystery, but it's not so scary. Having other people to actually discuss this with, there is a strength. There's a courage in me now, too. More than anything, I just feel freer. I want to thank you both. First of all, I want to tell everybody that the next death cafe events in San Diego are coming up this Saturday, the one at 1:00 p.m. at Pacific Beach Earl and birdie Taylor library and 2:00 p.m. Saturday at the metropolitan community church in Claremont. I've been speaking about the death cafe cafes with Karen Van Dyke and Scott Masters. Thank you both very much. Thank you, Maureen. Thank you.

Death — we fear it, tell jokes about it, work to stay healthy to postpone it and see it on TV nearly every day. But we usually don't discuss it and certainly not with a group of strangers.

That's why Death Cafes break most of the rules of polite society when they urge people to talk about death, dying and what might lie beyond.

The cafes are an idea that started in England several years ago as a way "to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives," according to the website.


Now there are death cafes around the globe including here in San Diego.

Karen Van Dyke started a death cafe in San Diego in May 2013 because she thought it would be helpful to participants. They are informal gatherings held in various locations.

“Talking about dying helps people to prepare for their own or other family members’ passing so that they live life more fully,” Van Dyke said. “The Death Cafe breathes life into the topic of death.”

Van Dyke said the majority of the participants are between the ages of 45 and 60, and each death cafe typically attracts about 25 people. The 25 or so people then break into smaller groups to answer questions like, "Where do you want your remains to go?" or "How do you want to be buried?"

"It's simply a place where intelligent people come together to talk about death over tea and cake," Van Dyke told KPBS Midday Edition on Monday.


Scott Masters, who has attended the death cafes, said the group attracted him because he wanted to stop living in denial against the idea of death.

"It's been a real need because, in my family, we didn't talk about this," Masters said. "Society doesn't talk about this. For me, it's real intimate because we are all going there."

"Death is a topic we should not be afraid to talk about because it truly is a part of life," said Alexis Pearce, a board certified chaplain and grief counselor with Silverado Hospice. "Our hope is that people will leave the discussion with a positive outlook on life by sharing their personal feelings and experiences."

Van Dyke said there are now more than 1,000 Death Cafes in 23 different countries.

San Diego's Death Cafe