"Welcome to Death Cafe!"
Linda Siniard stands before a mix of newcomers and regulars—Siniard calls the latter "repeat offenders"—on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Sebastopol. About 25 people have gathered here in the bright, windowed lunchroom of O'Reilly Media, where Siniard works. Near her is a small round table, on which a makeshift altar—flowers, stones, candles and photos—shares space with several stacks of paper: a questionnaire; downloaded information about end-of-life services; a fill-in-the-blank list that, when filled out, provides all the personal information loved ones might need—computer passwords, location of birth and marriage certificates, phone numbers for family members, insurance carriers, business and medical contacts, and so on.
There's also a stack of business cards.
On one side is a photo of a latte with a death skull swirled into the coffee's foam. On the other, Siniard's smiling face and the catchy slogan, "Where life and death meet, make friends . . . and eat cake."
Thus begins another Death Cafe.
"Is there anyone here who is in the early stages of grief?"
Siniard watches as a few hands slowly rise around the room.
"You're welcome here," she says, "and we hope you'll stay, but you should know that some people in the early stages of grief find that this is not a great fit for them. Death Cafe is not a therapy group, though it does sometimes have therapeutic outcomes. We laugh a lot more than we cry. We do cry here, but we laugh even more."
After her introductory remarks, Siniard invites everyone to find a table with three or four others and start the conversations. There are no rules and no guidelines.
At one table, a spontaneous review of the Albert Brooks afterlife comedy Defending Your Life leads to a lively exchange about great death-themed movies. At the next table, after each person has explained his or her particular interest in death, the topic rapidly turns to parents and the struggle of finding end-of-life options for parents unwilling to face that they can longer be independent. At another table, an artist who claims to be able to speak with the dead describes her process of sculpting dolls to help the living with their grieving process.
Today's cafe has drawn a wide mix of people, from grounded and fact-based realists to more spiritually inclined adventurers. Some want to talk about their feelings. Some are seeking practical information about how to write a will. Around the room, the tone is respectful, curious, interested and supportive.
"This is a personal mission for me," explains Siniard, who's currently working toward her Ph.D. in thanatology, the study of dying, death and grief. "A lot of us here are involved in death and dying in some way. Some are grief counselors or hospice workers; some are doctors, ministers or funeral directors—something that has to do with end-of-life or post-life work and thought."
The Sonoma County Death Cafe is one of about 60 that take place all over the world. Siniard's Sebastopol-based version, which she started in December, was recently featured in an NPR segment about the worldwide Death Cafe movement (www.deathcafe.com), started in 2011 by English web designer Jon Underwood.
Underwood was inspired by the work of French sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who, recognizing that modern-day humans are widely uncomfortable with death, began hosting public discussions on the subject of mortality, meeting in Paris cafes. Deciding to create his own Death Cafe in London, Underwood held the first meetup in the basement of his house, with his mother, a psychotherapist, serving as moderator for the discussion.
Tea and cake were served, which immediately became one of the expected elements of any new Death Cafe. Other guidelines are that they must be free, they must encourage confidentiality and a sense of security, there must be no intention of leading participants to any particular conclusion, product, belief system or course of action—and there must be cake.
"Death Cafe is very much a grass-roots type of movement, all-volunteer," Siniard explains as a few latecomers grab a cup of coffee or tea and a slice of cake, and find a conversation-in-progress to join. The goal of the cafe, simply put, is to take some of the stigma out of death, the one element of life that everyone shares in common. We all die. We might as well have a little fun with it on our way to facing it.
"For me, the Death Cafes have been a very positive experience," nods Siniard, who lost her son a few years ago. "The goal of the cafe is to take the subject of death out of the closet, out of the very secret, painful place it's been kept for years, and to make it normal.
"Because, really, what's more normal than death?"