Death Cafés Come to the Bay Area

Death cafés are similar to death over dinner forums, hosting open-ended conversations about death, but less formal. The first death café started in Paris in 2004, and the movement has now spread to 33 countries.2 Death cafés came to the U.S. in 2012, and several have taken place in the Bay Area.

Death Café, San Francisco

Jim Van Buskirk started a monthly death café in San Francisco with Harvey Schwartz and Danielle Brandon two years ago. The death café is open to anyone who wants to come. Around twenty people usually attend, most of them strangers to each other. They sit in a circle, sipping tea and eating cookies and fruit.

Van Buskirk and Schwartz explain the guidelines at the start of the two-hour meeting. The death café is not a bereavement group, but it is a forum open to any discussion related to death.

“It’s like a Quaker meeting,” said Van Buskirk, “Whoever wants to dive in and say ‘my cat died two years ago and I can’t stop thinking about it’ or ‘I’m trying to deal with
Jim Van Buskirk, Death Café cohost
the clutter left by my recently deceased parents.’ So it’s all over the map and very unpredictable.”

The stories can be serious and funny in turns. The conversations are free-wheeling and can become deeply philosophical. What is death? Is there an afterlife? What about reincarnation? Above all, death cafés are an outlet for people to speak about unmentionable subjects. It’s a safe space for people to speak freely in confidence.

Glenn was attending his first death café and asked the group “where were you thirty years ago when I needed you?” He said he experienced many deaths in his family at a young age and had no one to talk to. As a young man, he was confused, angry, and full of emotional pain.

“It’s cathartic to get things off your chest,” said Glenn, “I think hearing other people’s stories put things into perspective.” He adds, “Maybe it’s something you don’t need to be angry about. It might have made death seem almost natural, especially when you see people approaching it with such humility. It doesn’t have to be a shocking upheaval.”

By hosting the monthly death cafés, Van Buskirk and his colleagues hope that death will become demystified and less scary. Because fear of death is so great, most Americans are unprepared for the end of life. Although 75 percent of people polled want to die in their homes, only 25 percent actually do.3 “Because people are so resistant to writing their wills or working on their advance care directive,” said Van Buskirk, “Because they’re afraid that if they have all their documents in order, that it’s going to invite the grim reaper. The more we talk about it and the more we incorporate it into our lives, the better off we’ll be.”

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