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A Dispatch From a Boulder Death Cafe

Since September 2011, small groups of people across the world have gathered over tea and cake to discuss mortality. I went to one in Boulder to learn how COVID-19 and the King Soopers shooting are impacting those conversations.

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The Boulder Death Cafe doesn’t have many rules. You can ask any question. You can also refuse to answer any question. If someone’s words move you, you place a hand over your heart. That’s a new, Zoom-era rule, put in place to help participants communicate without battling their mute buttons.

The fourth and final rule isn’t really a rule at all, but a reminder from Reva Tift, the host, that the Death Cafe is about your experience. In other words, take what you need, leave what you don’t.

Tift, a Boulder psychotherapist, has been facilitating this meeting every other week for the past few years. She has about a dozen regulars, many of whom are in their 60s and 70s (the eldest participant is 93), but says new people often pop in for a session or two when they feel called to. “We’re all going to die,” Tift says. “The way you think about death is personal, but it’s also a universal, human experience. It’s something we can connect over, if we allow ourselves to talk about it.”

People host Death Cafes all over the world, not just in Boulder. The informal meetings are the brainchild of Londoner Jon Underwood, who began the Death Cafe in September 2011 after reading the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who’d hosted similar events. A student of Buddhism, Underwood believed talking about death would help people come to terms with its eventuality.

As the concept gained popularity, Underwood created both a website where people could post about upcoming Death Cafes and a guide for those interested in hosting their own. Among other instructions, it emphasizes that the gatherings shouldn’t be used in place of grief counseling or to give a formal presentation or lecture. Instead, a Death Cafe is an “open, respectful, and confidential space where people can express their views safely.” They’re also offered on a not-for-profit basis, and should always serve cake (seriously, it’s on page one).

Cake has been out of rotation since Tift moved the Death Cafe conversations from the Boulder Senior Center to Zoom when COVID-19 began, but the other tenets remain—with an extra dose of urgency. “People have really dropped down to a level of intimacy because COVID has made things so immediate,” Tift says. “We were thinking about death before, but now it’s just so magnified.”

That urgency was apparent in the group’s most recent meeting, on April 12. Tift started us off with deep breathing and stretching. We then introduced ourselves and explained how death is present in our lives. (I’m omitting names and details to respect everyone’s privacy; those whose names appear agreed to be included in this article.)

During my turn, I stumbled through my reaction to the pandemic—how it’s made death feel more present to me, like I could lose someone I love suddenly, without preparation. I realized immediately how difficult it is to talk about death when you’re not used to doing so. But many members of the group have more practice. Some talked about their health troubles, along with what they’ve been doing to come to terms with these reminders of their own mortality. Others discussed the loneliness of quarantine—the tension between wanting to make the most of the time they have left, but having to spend some of that time away from the people and places and things that give their life meaning.

The Boulder Death Cafe participants were grappling with the mass shooting at King Soopers on March 22, too. Paula McCaslin, a Boulderite who started attending the Death Cafe in September 2020, visited that store often. “When I was stressed at home, I’d go there to pick up batteries, or a cold drink,” she said. McCaslin told the group that, for a while after the shooting, she didn’t want to go back to the area. When she finally did a few days prior, she was moved by a cart filled with artificial tulips at the memorial nearby. She shared a few verses she wrote:

The lil shopping cart
Carried my produce and goods
Now it holds memories.

Other people talked about how the shooting popped the Boulder bubble, making a place that once seem insulated from the world’s problems feel more exposed. Someone else pointed out that Boulder isn’t special, that death happens everywhere. Several attendees recently had a loved one die, and they talked about trying to mourn in isolation.

The way the pandemic has altered the way we deal with death has been a frequent topic, according to Tift. “I think the hard part for a few people is seeing friends or even acquaintances die, and not be able to attend a memorial or be with family in-person,” Tift says. She lost her brother Mel this year to Parkinson’s, and has been able to share her thoughts and details that seem important to her, like Mel’s desire to be cremated, during the Death Cafe meetings.

Lyons resident Phyllis O’Rourke, a Death Cafe regular, says her cousin died at age 99 in December 2020, something she shared with other Cafe participants earlier this year. “He had a wicked sense of humor. He was like an extra sibling,” she tells me later. “We still haven’t been able to have a memorial service for him. It’s kind of brought everybody to their knees as far as how to cope with grief and suffering.”

Of course, many of us don’t know how to cope. O’Rourke thinks part of the problem is the tendency to shield ourselves from death. “A lot of people don’t like to think or talk about it because they’re superstitious,” O’Rourke says. “They’re afraid that if they talk about it, they’ll actually bring their death on sooner. But looking at it head-on makes me very cognizant of how I spend my time now.”

In that way, much of the Death Cafe is about life. “We talk about what’s unfinished in our lives,” Tift says. “If I were to die in a few weeks what are the conversations I need to have? Who do I need to get forgiveness from? Who do I need to forgive?”

Those aren’t new conversations, she says, but she’s noticed them happening more often since the pandemic made death more visible. And maybe that’s for the best. The Death Cafe isn’t the right forum for everyone—the website says as much—but we could all benefit from a dose of reflection and connection.

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