Millennials are dying to talk about dying
June 12, 2018
The Rev. Talitha Amadea Aho decided early in her ministry that she wanted to counter this prevailing denial of death in American culture. Inspired by the work of hospice organizations, she was determined to host a congregational conversation on death and dying. When a friend introduced her to the resources of the Death Café movement, she knew she had the perfect way to “take away the sting” of gazing into the abyss.
Begun in 2010 by Jon Underwood in England, the Death Café concept operates with a simple objective: “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” As a discussion group, rather than a grief support group, the model allows for flexibility according to the needs of each location. Gatherings may be small or large, heavily structured or loosely designed. They almost always include tea and cake.
As the associate pastor at Montclair Presbyterian Church in Oakland, California, Aho looked to an already-established group within the congregation to host her first café. In addition to the 30 members of the Women’s Coffee and Conversation group, the Death Café theme enticed two additional guests, one of whom traveled from a neighboring presbytery.
As counseled by the resources of the Death Café movement, Aho did not present herself as an expert on the topic of death and dying. Instead, she divided the women into small groups and invited them to share what they had already witnessed or heard about death. She found that everyone brought enough stories to process together without any further intervention from her.
“I trust that everyone has the material to do the work they need to do,” she said of her lack of a specific agenda for the conversation. In fact, the democratic approach encouraged by the Death Café founders “pulls us back to the communitarian roots of our religion.” The rite of passage becomes communal again.
Indeed, as the small groups shared their learnings and commitments with the larger group, the consensus became clear: the conversation needed to continue, next time with all — men, children, teens and young adults.
For Linda Potter, the impetus to lead Death Cafés was personal. In the span of four years, she lost a close aunt to brain cancer, her father to colon cancer and her nephew to drowning as the result of a seizure. She began to channel her grief through her work as a retreat coach.
A major theme of that work became “How do you want to live, knowing you are going to die?” When she heard about the Death Café movement on National Public Radio, she was determined to lead one.
As the pastor’s wife at First Presbyterian Church in Canton, New York, Potter believed the church would be the perfect setting for what would become an ongoing North Country Death Café. She set about recruiting participants from nearby colleges, one of which offers a mortuary science major.
In the past four years, the North Country Death Café has cultivated a strong following among professors, college students and hospice workers. Roughly one-third of the 30 people who attend each café are members of the congregation.
Potter marvels at the healing that takes place in each conversation. Simply by having their story heard, people find release and restoration. She was particularly moved when two college students, intending to leave at the intermission, decided to stay after hearing the story of a veteran with stage III cancer. They knew they had much more to learn from his story. The church is uniquely situated, Potter believes, to be relevant in a culture that desperately needs to deal with mortality.
“There aren’t many places left where we can be there for each other,” she said. “As we become more comfortable in talking about our death, we become more alive in our living.”
Gusti Linnea Newquist, Pastor of First United Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York
Today’s Focus: Death Café Phenomenon
Let us join in prayer for:
First United Presbyterian Church Staff
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, your sacrifice came in dying. May ours come through living — in the shadow of the cross. Amen.