Joshua Tehee

Fresno embraces taboo with Death Cafe

Graphic for Death Cafe, the global movement of an informal gathering where strangers eat, drink and talk death.
Graphic for Death Cafe, the global movement of an informal gathering where strangers eat, drink and talk death. Special to The Bee

It is perfectly normal to die, even if the thought of the inevitable gives most people the willies.

“It’s scary and its sad,” says Jill McCarthy, board chair for the Central California Valley Coalition for Compassionate Care and organizer of Fresno’s Death Cafe, an informal gathering where strangers eat, drink and talk death.

Dying is high of the list of things we’d rather not discuss, McCarthy says.

“We don’t think about it. Or if we do, we think about zombies.

Death Cafe sets aside the taboos and let’s people openly talk about dying in a relaxed, comfortable environment.

Started as a salon-style gathering in England in 2011, Death Cafe has became a global trend that’s spread to 33 countries. Meetings are held in actual cafes, at trendy bars and pubs, at cemeteries — even London’s Royal Festival Hall. The first American Death Cafe happened at a Panera Bread in Columbus, Ohio. As of 2012, there were Death Cafes in nearly 40 cities around the U.S., including New York, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Seattle.

Fresno held its first Death Cafe at Peeve’s Public House last month.

Two cafes are scheduled for June — 6 p.m. Monday, June 8, at Peeve’s and 3 p.m. Sunday, June 14, at the 500 Club in Clovis. More than 25 people have already signed up to attend through the website, McCarthy says.

Death Cafe is not grief therapy or a counseling session, though members of the CCVCC are on hand with resources for those in need. Nor is it end-of-life planning, though advance health care directive forms are available, along with information on California’s POLST (Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment) laws.

There is no proselytizing.

There is no agenda, theme or objective, really, other than having a conversation and “increasing the awareness of death,” McCarthy says.

It’s not as dreary as the name suggests. This isn’t a lecture from hospice workers. Attendees dictate where the conversations go and McCarthy calls the ones she’s heard “delightful.”

If needed, there’s a bowl with folded slips of paper; on each a question, a catalyst to get the conversations started. For instance: “What gives your life meaning?” Or, “What does quality of life look like to you?”

Talking about death and end-of-life issues is important and for the most part, doesn’t happen. It’s the dilemma of McCarthy’s work. Doctors aren’t trained to talk about end-of-life care and figure the patients don’t want to hear it, anyway, McCarthy says.

Dying exists in a void.

Death Cafe helps fill that void.

Craig Scharton attended last month’s cafe and immediately filled out his advanced health care directive. He’s been pestering his son and friends to do the same.

“It’s something I have literally meant to do for decades,” says Scharton, who owns Peeve’s Public House.

He survived cancer. Twice. So, he has faced mortality. He’s also seen the weird reactions people (friends even) have when they are close to death and the dying.

“They can’t even deal,” Scharton says.

Someday that stigma will be gone and death won’t be so taboo a topic, McCarthy says. Someday people will view dying as something to be celebrated — the natural conclusion of life. She imagines people throwing “death showers” like they do for marriages and babies.

We’re not there yet, though Death Cafe is a start.

“This is the movement,” she says.

Death Cafe

Peeve’s Public House

500 Club Bar and Grill