Death cafes remove mystery from the end

By Jesse Wright

Talking about death isn’t easy, but Rebekka James tries to make it painless.

James guides Death Cafes, discussions around the end of life, aimed at older people who need to plan for the end. In September she hosted a discussion in Streeterville. She will host a cafe anywhere, for free.

The Death Cafe provides a safe, confidential forum where people are invited to discuss thoughts about death, dying, and mortality freely and openly,” James said. “While this may not be everyone’s cup of tea (though tea is served), many people have questions, feel fear, suffer loss, and simply wonder about the future.” 

James usually hosts the cafes in a public space, such as a library, though she’s also done private Death Cafes. She said a variety of people of all ages attend. The cafes were started by Bernard Crettaz and Jon Underwood, and to host an “official” cafe through the deathcafe.com website, James said a leader needs to follow certain guidelines.

The guide states, ‘The Death Café model is an agenda-free discussion, with topics determined by attendees,’” James said. “Facilitators are there to move the discussion if it stalls.”

She said each cafe is different. The best maximum is 10-12 people and the conversation moves according to who is present and what they want to discuss.

“That’s the beauty of this forum,” she said.

Generally people talk about familiar topics, including power of attorney information, health care information and how one even begins talking about death with family.

James is also a registered celebrant with the Celebrant Foundation, an institution that trains people to officiate weddings and other celebrations. It’s at the foundation that she first heard the term death cafe.

I attended my first one in June of 2018, led by Sheryl Barajas. Sheryl had done a great deal of work promoting and establishing Death Cafes at numerous Chicago-area libraries.”

The schedule is at deathcafe.com. James said she regularly hosts cafes at the Wilmette and Arlington Heights libraries.
“Also, the cafe part is important—there will always be coffee, tea, and sweets to comfort the soul,” she said.

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