Sooner or later, we all must face up to death. But whether it’s our impending demise or that of beloved friend or family member — or even a dear pet’s — death is notoriously hard to talk about.
“Topics related to aging and death are uncomfortable, and it’s easier to push decisions down the road and not think about it,” Silas Walsh, a graduate research assistant at the Maine Center on Aging at the University of Maine in Orono, said. But people avoid discussing death at their peril.
“Seventy-five percent of people interviewed say they want to die in their homes,” Walsh said, “but only 25 percent do it.” That’s in large part because of a lack of end-of-life planning and poor communication with family members and caregivers. Walsh, a native of Belfast who is working toward a master’s degree in social work, is among a growing number of Mainers who want to reverse that trend and prompt a more open conversation about issues related to death and dying.
At the upcoming UMaine Clinical Geriatrics Colloquium on Oct. 20, Walsh will help organize and facilitate a noontime “death lunch.” This is not some morbid, Addams Family repast. It’s an opportunity for people attending the conference — mostly professionals working in health care, education, counseling, law, advocacy and other aging-related fields — to learn to create a relaxed, social environment for discussing the deeply personal and yet universal topic of dying.
“The goal is to prompt an honest conversation about death, which is a taboo topic in today’s society,” Walsh said. Using evocative props like photos, poems and song lyrics, each table of 10 to 15 people will discuss their experiences with death, their hopes and fears, the end-of-life planning they have done, the memorial service they want, beliefs about what happens after life is over — any aspect of the dying inevitability that the props invoke.
Walsh hopes some participants will use the experience to help their clients and patients communicate more openly about death or to spur a conversation within their own families.
The idea of a death lunch is not new. It’s a conference-friendly version of the slightly more familiar model of the “ death cafe,” where community members are invited to drop in for an hour or so of coffee, tea, cake and conversation about dying. Another format is the home-based death dinner for invited friends and neighbors.
Chuck Lakin of Waterville, who co-founded the website “ Last Things: Alternatives at the End of Life,” said the death cafe has been growing in popularity in Maine over the past few years, with groups meeting regularly in the southern part of the state and in several coastal communities as far east as Mount Desert Island. While most groups attract just an intimate handful of participants, he said, a particularly robust cafe in Damariscotta routinely pulls in 25 or 30.
Lakin, who leads a popular do-it-yourself coffin-building demonstration each year at the Common Ground Country Fair, said it’s important to carefully consider end-of-life options and communicate with those who are charged with seeing that preferences are carried out, regardless of what those preferences are. But, he acknowledged, that clarity can be hard to come by.
“It’s mostly because death is no longer a part of our lives the way it used to be,” he said. A hundred years ago, he said, the average lifespan in the U.S. was 46 years, communities were small and close-knit, and death from illness, childbirth or accident was commonplace.
“When someone died then, you knew what to do about it,” Lakin said. These days, it’s more common for death to take place in an impersonal hospital or nursing facility than in the familiar surroundings of home and much more the norm that a funeral home will handle the tasks of washing the body, preparing it for burial and hosting a wake.
Death cafes and similar events offer an opportunity to normalize and personalize the end-of-life discussions that allow individuals and their families to guide their own experience, Lakin said.
Former emergency room nurse Amanda Carr leads death cafes at a Portland home care agency. Others, she said, take place at the Portland Public Library and other sites around the city. Carr is also trained as a death doula, helping individuals and families choose and prepare for the end-of-life transition they want to experience.
“The cafes facilitate these conversations and are starting to change the climate of death in our culture,” she said. As people seek alternatives to traditional religious concepts of life and death, the medicalized culture of the healthcare system and the formalities of the funeral home industry, she said, straightforward conversation with peers, tinged with compassion and humor, has an essential role to play.
“We all know we’re going to die,” she said. “We talk about it all the time, we see it all around us, but it’s still not easy to talk about our own death.”
In downtown Bangor, social worker and energy practitioner Sue Richardson leads a monthly death cafe at the Maine Holistic Center on Main Street. The group meets from 2 to 4 p.m. on the last Sunday of each month. There will be no meeting in September, however, because Richardson will be on vacation.
“The whole thing is non-political and non-religious. It’s not a support group or a counseling session,” she said. But for those looking to explore issues ranging from personal beliefs about the afterlife to the practical realities of advance directives, Richardson said, the death cafe format helps keep the discussion frank, on track and out of the shadows.