Coffee and cake take taboo out of death talk

Death? Now there’s a topic very few people want to sit around and talk about.

Café? Walk into one these days and you’ll face a sea of laptop users sitting alone, working on their computers and not interacting with others.

From the website deathcafe.com

But put “death” and “café” together and maybe you’ve got something. Death is a subject that needs to be talked about, and a café-like setting is a good forum in which to do it. That’s why several times a year, Jewish agencies and synagogues throughout the Bay Area offer Death Cafés, providing safe spaces for people to talk about their feelings.

“Death is still somewhat of a taboo subject, or at least an awkward subject, for many people,” said Sam Salkin, executive director at Sinai Memorial Chapel. “Frequently, people don’t have the language or the means to explore and articulate their feelings on the topic, and these opportunities are potentially valuable in that they create a context for that. Talking about death is a healthy conversation to have.”

Edna Stewart leads Death Cafés around the Bay Area.

In June, a Death Café in Alameda attracted 33 people, the largest crowd to date. Quarterly Death Cafés are held at the Jewish Family and Children’s Services office in Palo Alto. Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley holds them from time to time, as does the JCC of San Francisco, most recently on July 28.

In the same vein, organizations also have sponsored workshops on the end of life and lectures on the Jewish way of death and dying. A monthly six-part series, “Walking in the Valley of the Shadow — And Not Being Afraid,” was offered at five Bay Area locations starting in March. Co-sponsored by Sinai, Lehrhaus Judaica and the Gamliel Institute, the series was so popular that it will be repeated this fall and expand to new venues, said Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, Lehrhaus chief program officer and senior educator.

While Death Cafés have little to do with actual cafés, they are still a place to connect over drink and food.

One proponent is Morton Chalfy, 77, of Alameda. “It’s good to have a safe space to express what’s inside,” said Chalfy, a novelist who has attended the cafés regularly for the last two years. “Sitting with your plate in your lap, having a bite of cake and a cup of coffee, makes talking about death seem more normal, much less like a psychologist’s office and more like talking in a living room.”

“I wanted to open the conversation,” says Shiva Schulz of JCCSF.

He said a dozen or more new people show up each time. “Usually, they are surprised by what they say, by the emotions that they weren’t aware they had been suppressing,” he said. “The freedom comes from knowing that death is not a taboo subject here — it’s The Subject — and that gives people license to open up.”

The Death Café movement was founded in Eng­­­land in 2011 as “a group-directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes.” Death Cafés are part of a “social franchise” and have been held in 33 countries, according to the website deathcafe.com. While not intended to serve as a grief support group or psychotherapy, they do fill an important need, giving people of all ages and backgrounds the freedom to expand their awareness, speak in confidence, or simply listen.

Edna Stewart, 71, has led Death Cafés in Alameda and at several Bay Area congregations. She is a staff member at Gamliel, an education center in Berkeley that focuses on Jewish end-of-life practices.

Stewart equates the current interest in talking about death with something that was taboo before the 1970s: talking about sex. “Then that door opened, and ever since, people have been freely talking about the good and the bad. That has improved our society,” she said. “Discussions about death will do the same thing.”

Diane Wilson facilitates discussions at the JCCSF.

The JCCSF first offered a Death Café last fall as part of “Embracing the Journey: An End of Life Resource Fair,” a daylong event. “We wanted to open the conversation,” said Shiva Schulz, the center’s adult programs manager. “People were intrigued, and came to the Death Café without really knowing much about it.”

The 17 participants ranged in age from 40 to their early 80s, according to facilitator Diane Wilson, a San Francisco psychotherapist. “Some had recently lost a loved one, some were caregivers and some had just retired,” she said.

Wilson said she seeks to create “an atmosphere of openness where people can speak freely and where everyone who wants to talk gets a chance,” while noting that all facilitators structure the sessions differently. “I like to explain that confronting anxiety about death can enrich our lives if we use that to think about how to make the world a better place. None of us has to wait until we are ready to die to learn how to make our lives worthwhile.”

Joan Goldner, associate business manager for Seniors At Home, a division of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, attended her first Death Café in March. Goldner, 64, said although she had never before spoken about a personal experience around the death of a loved one, she did open up.

“When I talked about my feelings and my fears, someone in that room said they understood,” she said. “I walked out of there feeling better for being imperfect.”

Joan Goldner attended her first Death Café in March.

She said she also learned that people can “get in front of this issue,” as opposed to shying away from it. “Just by talking about it, we can ease some of our fears about this great unknown,” said Goldner.

Every day at work, she interacts with people facing death. “I also am facing that I am getting older, that I won’t always be as active and as productive as I am now, and that’s worrisome and it’s hurtful,” she said. “Hopefully we all can have a better acceptance of death, but at the same time not dwell on it, and enjoy our lives.”

Chalfy, the regular participant in Alameda, said he is surprised at how people don’t acknowledge their own mortality. That’s likely one reason he keeps returning to the Death Cafés, where people not only acknowledge it, but want to talk about it, too.

“Any good discussion about death that doesn’t lead to a deeper discussion about life doesn’t do much good,” he said. “Over and over, people at the Death Cafés say that talking about death got them thinking about how to spend the rest of their lives.”

Death Cafés are scheduled in Alameda Sept. 11, Palo Alto Sept. 14, at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City on Oct. 30 and at the JCCSF’s End of Life Resource Fair on Nov. 13. For more information visit www.deathcafe.com.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.