Why We Can’t Be Scared to Talk About Death

Aug 8, 2019

Grave conversations come alive at Death Café.
Credit Abigail Megginson

Jeff Buchanan’s fiancé was a little confused when he told her he was going to a Death Café Tuesday evening.

“She said, ‘What is it with you and all that death and dying?’” Buchanan recalls. “Well it’s not just me but we’re all going to have to go sometime.”

Buchanan has a point. No one escapes death. As a social worker in Century who specializes in hospice care, talking about dying isn’t scary for him. In fact, Buchanan wishes he could talk about it more without always shutting down the conversation.

At Death Café, Buchanan doesn’t have to worry about that happening. The event provides an opportunity for community members to talk about death and all the issues and thoughts surrounding the traditionally grim subject.

Jeff Buchanan (left in blue) arrives early to Death Café meeting and waits for it to begin.
Credit Abigail Megginson

Death café may be niche, but it’s an international phenomenon. Originally founded in London by a mother-son duo back in 2011, Death Cafés have been held in more than 60 countries. The group meetings are free to attend and are never meant to encourage a specific viewpoint on death. Anyone can start a Death Café using the online guide.

In 2017, Lelanya Taber decided she would start a Death Café in Pensacola. Taber is a bereavement counselor with VITAS Healthcare, a hospice care provider in Pensacola. She saw the stress and pain families went through because they had never discussed death.

Lelanya Taber is a bereavement manager at VITAS Healthcare, a hospice care service in Pensacola. She leads Death Café and started the chapter to help people be more prepared when death does arrive.
Credit Abigail Megginson

“A lot of times people are uncomfortable with (death) so we are trying to bring it out into the open and normalize it,” she said.

When her supervisor suggested she start one, Taber had already planned on bringing up the idea. The first café was held in a nursing home. But now, the event has expanded to include guests of all ages and backgrounds.

The most recent Death Café in late July met at Apple Market. About eight people showed up, no one under the age of 30. At least half of the participants were connected to the social-work field. With coffee and cake available on a nearby counter, Death Café participants gathered in a circle on couches and chairs to begin talking about the end.

Taber leads the Death Cafes and one of her jobs is to guide the discussion. To start, she asks the group what they want to do before they die. After a slightly awkward silence, participants start to share. One member says he want to go back to Europe, and spend time with his grandkids. Another expresses contentment, wishing to do nothing more than she has already accomplished.

Taber says the conversations are different every time; after all, death is a broad topic. From supernatural experiences with death to why funerals are important, both the practical and philosophical ideas about death took their turns in the discussion. Participants slowly opened up revealing their personal post-death plans. One woman said she planned for her cremated remains to be sprinkled in the Gulf of Mexico while a man said he’d like to be planted with a tree in order to continue being a part of some semblance of life.

But no matter how different the beliefs among the group were, the conversation remained open. It’s this judgment-free space that Trista Blouin said made her want to be a part of Death Café.

“Someone brought up that we all have different kinds of thoughts about death because of our religion or our culture,” she said. “I think it was really neat for us to feel comfortable enough to just be open about that.”

Trista Blouin shares her thoughts on death in a safe and open environment.
Credit Abigail Megginson

Yet, these open conversations rarely exist in daily life like they do at Death Café. Taber says she’s seen how the fear around any discussion about death can limit the readiness many people need to have before someone close to them dies. By creating a will and getting affairs in order, it could make a grief-filled moment a little less stressful for those we leave behind.

“(Let’s) plan for the future that we know this is going to occur let’s let our family know so everyone is on the same page,” Taber said. “Let’s make a gift to our family by going ahead and making those arrangements for ourselves.”

There’s light at the end of the tunnel when talking about death. Taber says that facing its inevitability will help us live better lives today, “It makes us appreciate our lives and make the most of the time we have,” Taber said. “We know that this is coming. Let’s live our lives and do things that are important and meaningful.”

Avoiding this conversation is nothing new. Dr. Amy Mitchel Cook is the chair of the UWF Department of History and says people have always been spooked by death because of the element of the unknown.

“I think most people are scared of it because we don’t know what happens,” Cook said. “I mean we really don’t know. Do you go to heaven? Do you not? Do you just end? Are you re-incarnated?”

And despite death’s relevance in life, acknowledging it isn’t as common as it once was.

“I think it’s more hidden in a lot of ways and yet it is so prevalent in the news and social media, but if you look back to medieval times to 18th and 19th century, death was more apparent, it was expected,” Cook said.

While death isn’t an easy topic to explore, it often makes us appreciate the life we are living now and how we can make the most of the time we have here.

Before Jeff Buchanan left home to go back to his fiancé, he said Death Café left him feeling excited, motivated, and in his words, “like living.”

For more information on Death Café, or to find out when the next one is, visit deathcafe.com.