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Death Cafe, where you eat snacks and talk about mortality


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LIVINGSTON, Montana (AP) — White paper signs provided a sort of bread-crumb trail up to the second floor of the Shane Lalani Center for the Arts. In a room next to a darkened rehearsal space, Mariana Olsen and her husband Will Bernard were busy putting out coffee and snacks.

On a small table next to Oreos and other treats was a plastic skull that Bernard named Edward wearing a flat-brimmed hat, silently welcoming visitors to the town’s first ever Death Café.

The purpose of a Death Café is not to focus on the macabre or gruesome aspects of dying. Rather, it serves as a communal space where people can discuss all things death-related, from the immediate feelings of losing a loved one to funeral expenses and the administrative side of death, all while enjoying coffee, tea and snacks.

The idea to bring a Death Café here came to Olsen after a pair of deaths she experienced firsthand last year. She euthanized her cat in April 2020, and went down a rabbit hole to better understand how to discuss and explain that death to her daughter.

Then, in September 2020, her father died. She was in the room when her dad perished, but in the days leading up to his death, she was worried that she wouldn’t see him because of COVID-19 protocols. She had hatched a scheme to break in by scaling the hospital walls to see him — a plan she didn’t need after hospital staff gave her the OK to be in the room.

The research she had done on death in the months prior had prepared her for that moment, but she was soon confronted with the reality that death is a taboo that not many people want to — or know how to — talk about.

“When my dad died, it was really isolating,” Olsen told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “I didn’t really have anyone to talk to, I didn’t know what to say, nobody really knew what to say to me. And I just realized there’s kind of just this really awkward space when it comes to talking about death.”

Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist, created the first version of the Death Café in 2004, naming it Cafe Mortels. The model for that first meeting was used by an English duo in 2011 to influence what Death Cafés are today: a meeting meant to allow for free-flowing, confidential and judgment-free dialogue about death.

Though Olsen and Bernard’s café was the first of its kind in Livingston, there have been in the past decade more than 13,000 Death Cafés in 80 countries.

This meeting was small and intimate, with only three people attending to discuss their experiences with death. Due to the personal nature of their stories, participants requested to not be named.

One person had been to at least three or four Death Cafés before. The other café-goers had heard of them, and after seeing Olsen’s Facebook event, wanted to come to check out the space where they could share and listen to experiences with death.

Death Cafe2
A plastic skull named Edward welcomed participants to the Death Café at the Shane Lalani Center for the Arts in Livingston on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2021. | Alex Miller, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

There was no real structure to the conversations outside of some icebreakers that Olsen and Bernard had prepared, but there were tears, laughter and nods of agreement in the difficulty of the topic at hand.

One question touched upon how they viewed their own death.

A participant said she had recently become a mother, and reflected on how that changed her view of death. Before, she had come to terms with her own mortality, but having a child put life into a different perspective.

“It’s easier to accept your own death than your child’s eventual death,” she said.

Another wanted to live long enough to see her son turn 18.

“When he turned 18, I was like ‘Yes! I made it,’” she said.

Death Cafés are non-profit “social franchises,” Olsen said. They are not mission or goal oriented, and they’re not trying to sell something. But Olsen hoped this café and others like it would plant a seed in people’s minds to consider death in more real terms.

“I think we need to humanize death again by talking about it, putting a face on it, and making it OK to talk about, making it OK to cry about it, and even making it OK to laugh about it,” she said.

In the 18 months since the start of the pandemic, death has become all too familiar, and to a certain degree, impersonal. In Gallatin County, 69 people have died of complications from COVID-19.

Though survival rates for COVID-19 are high but can vary based on age, medical conditions and other factors, Olsen said it’s the dehumanization of the smaller percentage of those who die from the virus, and how people view it, that worries her.

“We’ve depersonalized it because we’re thinking in numbers, and it’s become political,” Olsen said. “And that is really, really scary because the cost is something that a lot of people won’t see until it’s too late.”