SEARSPORT, Maine — As the saying goes, the only sure things in life are death and taxes.
But while there’s no lack of conversation about taxes, often the only time people talk or think about death is when there is a crisis at hand. And that is something that Nancy McAlley, a registered nurse and an interfaith minister from Morrill, would like to change.
“As an R.N., working with the end of life, I found that people resisted death so much, it was rather painful,” she said Tuesday. “I wondered if they had more understanding and acceptance that death comes to all of us, there would be more peace, calm and closure — rather than a fight to hang on to life.”
Toward the goal of conversation and understanding, she began in January to hold “Death Cafes” in the midcoast area. The cafes are a chance for people to gather together and talk about death. It’s not a support group, but rather a concept that began in Europe and has made its way to the U.S., with the midcoast gatherings marking the first Death Cafes held in New England, McAlley believes.
An Englishman named Jon Underwood began to hold Death Cafes in his basement in September 2011, with subsequent gatherings held in such locales as a yurt, actual cafes and the Royal Festival Hall. The nonprofit cafes are designed to be a safe place for people to express their views and where facilitators do not lead participants toward any conclusion or course of action.
In Maine, the cafes have been held at private houses and other locations, too, with the next ones scheduled for 6-8:30 p.m. Thursday, April 18, in Waterville and 6:30-8 p.m. Tuesday, April 23, at a private home in Searsport. Reservations are required to attend the events. To sign up and find out the exact locations, call Chuck Lakin in Waterville at 873-7854 and McAlley in Searsport at 342-3421.
“It’s been great,” McAlley said of the gatherings held so far in Belfast and Camden. “Basically, the purpose of it is to alert the public that death is a fact of life, and give them a forum to talk about issues. You can’t go to the grocery store and talk about it. You can’t meet with your friends and discuss this over lunch. Most people don’t want to talk about it.”
But the people who come to the Death Cafes, she has found, do. It doesn’t hurt that the conversation is well-oiled by tea, coffee and refreshments — or that people have a lot of questions about death, ranging from the quotidian to the more esoteric. During the March cafe in Camden, the people present talked about wills, McAlley said. What’s the benefit of going to a lawyer, they wondered? Is it possible to make a will yourself? They also talked about something else: someone with a pagan parent wanted to talk about the idea of having a pagan funeral, and the problems that could present at a funeral home.
“Death pervades our lives,” McAlley said, adding that she retired from her nursing career to pursue her passion: teaching people about death and end-of-life issues. “People are so uncomfortable with it. It would be nice to have it be a household word, almost.”
Gloria Young, a licensed clinical social worker and the host of the Searsport Death Cafe, said that she attended the one in Camden and was inspired to hold one in her home. She said she’s planning on doing some baking, and will have plenty of warm drinks at hand.
“I was so impressed with the ability to sit around and talk over coffee about something that’s usually so scary to talk about,” she said. “It was just very comfortable. It wasn’t a grief group, where people are crying. It was very easy.”
Young said that people came because they were curious about death, and some were beginning to think about the fact of their own mortality.
“Americans deal with death as little as possible,” she said. “I love the idea of death being part of life, truly.”