It’s not a typical topic of polite conversation, and many avoid it all together. And yet, like birth and aging, death is an inevitable part of being human. Human civilizations since time immemorial have grappled with death and dying in varied ways. Today, we see humans grappling with the next phase in new ways, from “coffin clubs” in New Zealand where members build and decorate their own caskets to sustainable burial practices such as futuristic tree pods.
“Death, it’s going to happen. We are aging. We are going to die. Everybody goes there. It is something that is inevitable,” said Marcia Ortiz, regional volunteer coordinator with Roze Room Hospice of Ventura. “The better we prepare individuals and families…we can make their passing less stressful, less worried.”
Death and Coffee
Locally, death midwives and hospice providers are offering a simple way to help bring the topic of death, and the necessary preparations, out of the shadows.
“Let’s talk about death. Come talk about death and dying with other people who are also going to die someday,” reads the flyer for a Death Café hosted by Josyln Lawrence earlier this year in Ojai.
A Death Café is “just a place to talk about death and dying, in a safe environment,” said Lawrence. Based in Ojai, she has a degree in spiritual psychology and is trained in hospice and as a death midwife. According to her, these spaces are needed because there is “so much stigma” in our society today around talking about end of life.
“It is a discussion group, no agenda,” said Ortiz, who has hosted Death Cafés. “It’s not counseling.” Even so, the act of talking and sharing provides a poultice to the fear and unease around the topic. “Anyone can host it. It is respectful and confidential, not leading to any conclusion. There is always some kind of food involved, cake typically, something sweet.”
“The idea of eating and drinking is to affirm your life,” said Lawrence. She points to cultures that ritualize eating and gathering with neighbors as a way to live more fully. An example is Día de los Muertos, where the living remember and honor their ancestors with elaborate altars and also celebrate life through feasting with their community.
Robin Kent, a lifelong Oxnard resident, was volunteering with hospice and had completed death midwifery training when she heard about a local Death Café in an ad on Facebook. “They were talking about death, their experiences, some people had lost people recently so they had a lot to say about that person, memorialize the person. At the end of the meeting, we had all spent a couple hours supporting each other.”
Kent decided to host one herself and her well-known home provided a welcoming setting for conversations about death. The historic, craftsman Levy House built in 1912 lends itself to the season of all-hallows-eve and it seemed a natural fit. While she insists it is not haunted, she admitted that, “It’s an older stately home from another time. I can imagine back in the day they probably laid their dead out in this parlor.”
The first Death Café was in England in 2010 and was hosted by Jon Underwood. He was inspired by the ideas of Bernard Crettaz of Switzerland who held Café Mortel events in a desire to end the stigma and secrecy around death. Death Café is a nonprofit organization and created a “social franchise,” meaning that anyone can use their name and post their events to the DeathCafe.com website so long as you follow the basic tenets: no agenda, no charge, safe and confidential space, with tea and cake. (Apparently, wine or cookies are a suitable substitute.) Thousands of cafés have been held around the world.
Lawrence credited Steven Jenkinson (www.orphanwisdom.com) with inspiring her in this work. Jenkinson writes and speaks about how we care for the dying. “We are really a death averse culture,” which leads us to lack “grief literacy,” said Lawrence.
“I was getting interested in that doorway, similar to the doorway of birth. There was a time when people didn’t talk about birth, men weren’t allowed. It was a mysterious kind of thing,” Lawrence said, adding that there is a similar “cycle” to the death process, and she is drawn to help shed more light on death and dying.
Topics at the Death Café include, “fears about aging, being put in a nursing home, not having their wishes carried out [after they die], people talk about suicide.” Lawrence said that people often want to talk about things they can’t discuss with family or even friends. “It is so hard in a family to talk about.” She noted that members of the military come, “who have seen a lot of death.”
“I think baby boomers are the largest [part of the] population in terms of that bump all getting older, and because we as a group are really involved in exploring different aspects of life and living, it makes sense that now, as we are aging, we are really looking at death and dying and the things that separate us from our parents,” offered Ortiz. “I see many families fearful of death; they don’t want us to use the word hospice.”
She sees the movement around more conscious dying growing from a desire to find peace with the inevitable. “I think that is what this movement is all about, finding that peace for yourself as you are going to die. That would be my only explanation, all the interest in mindfulness, mediation, alternative medicine, all those things are indicative of a more conscious way to living perhaps, and a conscious way of dying.”
This “conscious way of dying” includes exploring death’s connection to the life cycle. Lawrence explained that dying in hospitals or nursing homes separates people — both the dying and the loved ones — from the natural cycle. “When they realize [death] is returning to the earth, dying is going back . . . there is so much more ease, no nervousness. There is a really profound shift. . . Nature is the place that we look to for those lessons that everything dies. That piece is so big. We are nature. We have lost touch with that in our culture.” She described how children can be shown the cycle as a leaf falls and dies, then “creates more compost, we are like that, too.”
Support Along the Way
The terms “death doula,” “death midwife” and even hospice are modern words for something that is “probably very old . . . an individual to help family and the [dying] transition to that next place.” Ortiz said the services provided “run the gamut from the very practical — the things that need to be done after a loved one dies — to the very existential, spiritual aspects of dying.”
Ortiz points to the need in modern Western culture to train people to support the dying and their families. This is where death midwives and doulas come in.
Death doula work is about “sitting vigil” with the dying, providing comfort and emotional support as needed to that person and immediate family members. Death midwives are also trained in after-death care “such as cleansing the body, preparing the body for the funeral director to pick up.” A death midwife might also plan and assist in preparations for a home funeral.
As a death midwife, Kent offers emotional support to those facing their mortality. But she also assists with the practicalities. She frequently helps families put together a “death file.” It should contain all the advance planning documents, “so that they are all in one place and easy to find.” She also holds free workshops to assist people with this, and provides referrals as needed to help prepare the documents.
“I’m trained to be a spiritual counselor to people who are terminal and to their families,” said Kent. “I always had a fascination with death. I am too old to have been a goth, I was born 10 years too late for that. I’ve always liked sad poetry, death images and all of that, to a degree it’s always been a part of my chemistry. My own mother’s death . . . she was sick for some time, we knew that she was dying. When it came time to go into hospice, it was a whole new ballgame.”
Kent’s mother was in hospice care with House of Hope in Thousand Oaks for nine days before dying. She experienced firsthand the value of the care provided. “The owners, volunteers, staff, were wonderful. I thought, if I’m ever in a position to give back that kind of help and be of service in that way . . . I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”
Sparking a Dialogue
“I love that invitation . . . to talk about death and dying. . . . Maybe that will spark a dialogue with their parents who are aging,” said Lawrence. “That is just what I hope for in the world, anything I can do that could spark [people] having more ease in that place, that is what I hope for.”
Simply put, Kent says Death Café’s are, “a wonderful environment to explore how you really feel about death and dying.”
Pass the cake.
Upcoming events and resources
DEATH CAFÉ Saturday, Nov. 2, 6:30-8:30 p.m. The Levy House, 155 South G Street, Oxnard. RSVP firstname.lastname@example.org
DANCE OF BELONGING Sunday, Nov. 3, 6:30-8:30 p.m. RSVP 415-601-8102. Somatic Sanctuary, 410 W. Ojai Avenue, Ojai. www.diewellcollective.com
Roze Room Hospice of Ventura: www.rozeroomhospiceofventura.org