A Death Cafe is not a space for grieving. It is not therapy. It is, first and foremost, a site for discussion about a frequently avoided topic in our culture.
Jacki Mann, RN, the founder of Gambier’s first Death Cafe, made sure to establish this from the start.
“We want to talk about death, but where do you go to talk about it? You don’t go to a party,” she said to the group. It was a dreary Saturday morning, yet more than 20 participants, mostly students, had crowded into the small living room of Woollam House to listen to Mann. Some were holding plates of cake and cups of coffee while others were leaning against walls.
Death Cafes were concieved by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. In 2004, he started hosting gatherings at a restaurant with the sole purpose of openly discussing death. There was no formal structure and no restrictions on who could come. It was meant to be a secular dialogue without judgment. The idea took off from there. Today there are around 6,000 Death Cafes worldwide.
Mann wanted to start her own Death Cafe ever since she moved to Gambier from Columbus in August. She is a hospice nurse and a Life & Death Coach, a job that she began after the sudden death of her sister in 2010. Through her work, she has noticed an intense fear of death in American culture.
“It’s all about dyeing your hair, getting a face lift, staying young and avoiding death and getting old at all cost,” she said. She saw open conversation as a healthy way to address that fear.
It took her a few months to settle in, but now that she has her roots, she is excited to bring the discussion to the Hill.
“Every community can benefit from starting the conversation,” she said. “I feel that it’s something I need to offer.”
The Gambier cafe began with each participant saying their name and reason for attending. The event was open to anyone, so ages and experience with death varied widely. It was also free, although Mann did ask for donations for refreshments if anyone was inclined.
After introductions, Mann split the crowd into three smaller groups, which then settled into separate rooms. She gave each group a small bag of questions to spark discussions, but, for the most part, let them talk freely. It only took a few minutes before the conversations took on lives of their own.
To bring the topic closer to her younger participants, Mann introduced the concept of “little deaths.” She asked her participants to think of the smaller losses in their lives, like the change from high school to college, and urged them to think about how these minor losses had affected them.
“It’s so important right now to get into that mode of thought,” Director of Programs for the Kenyon Review Anna Duke Reach advised the college-aged members of her group. “We’re here to tell you that putting it off doesn’t help.”
The mood of each conversation ranged from somber and tearful to lighthearted and playful. In one room, a group was engaged in a sobering discussion about suicide, while laughter resounded from the wall next to them. Mann occasionally stopped by each group to gently guide them with follow-up questions.
People were surprised when time was up. With contented expressions, each group returned to the living room and gathered around Mann. She asked for some final thoughts, went over a few possible times for the next meeting and urged everyone to keep the conversation going.
Though she said she didn’t have any expectations for the event, she was excited by the turnout, especially of students.
“You’re the generation that can really be the spark of change in this culture,” she said. “It really starts with you.”