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Death Café urges lively embrace of topic most choose to avoid

May 19, 2018 Updated: May 19, 2018 at 7:11 pm
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Death Cafe members meet at Evergreen Cemetery at 7 p.m. on the third Tuesday of every month. (Gazette file photo)

The gathering started almost like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, with each person introducing themselves by confessing why they were there.

This was not about addiction, however, at least not one commonly understood.

"Hi, I'm Lauren, and I like death and living, a lot," said Lauren Carroll, 33-year-old mother of two and an expert on alternative funeral rituals. Admitting to liking death in most settings is likely to provoke raised eyebrows, but Carroll did it howdy-style, with a big smile and a wave.

As with admonishments about discussing politics or religion at the dinner table, death carries its own taboo.

But such rules don't apply at this meeting. Not at Death Café, where mortality is the common denominator and the only topic on the table.

The group's goal, other than trying to understand the inevitable, is to move the conversation out of the dark and into the light. Because understanding and preparing for death allows us to "make the most of our finite lives," as the Death Café website says.

The Café model was developed in London in 2011 by Jon Underwood and Sue Barksy Reid, who recognized people want to talk about death, and should. What's going to happen to a person's estate after passing, how does a person wish to be laid to rest, how will the family pay for the funeral? All practical questions that don't receive much play in the presence of the healthy, youthful living.

Rather than deal with the uncomfortable, Underwood and Reid noticed people generally avoided the topic. Only to be blindsided.

Carroll saw it often while serving as a Colorado Springs funeral director, she explained at Death Café's May meeting. Too often families would come to her desperate and confused because they'd never talked about death. She formed the local chapter of Death Café in hopes it might flip the script.

The group - usually five to 10 like-minded or interested people - meets at 7 p.m. on the third Tuesday of every month. In the summer, they use the Chapel at Evergreen Cemetery, 1005 Hancock Expressway.

At first blush, the choice of location seems - let's face it - a little creepy. But it's actually the perfect setting, as cemeteries are one of the few places were society actually acknowledges death. In that way, talking about it there feels almost natural.

On this night, there are former or current funeral directors, hospice volunteers, a cemetery historian.

"I mean, death happens to us all," Carroll says matter-of-factly before indulging her 9-year-old son's request to "go look at the headstones." For it was public speaking that made little Henry squirm in his seat, not the topic.

If a child can discuss death, why can't adults, the group asked.

"In this specific group it's OK to ask questions," 50-year-old Art Prince prefaced before posing one of his own: "How often does death come up in conversations outside of this group?"

Considering death is already intertwined in the careers of most everyone in the room, the answer actually was "a lot," but that doesn't mean people outside the group are receptive to it.

By day, Prince is a tour guide and historian through the Evergreen Cemetery Benevolent Society, where his knowledge of death and dying is appreciated. But at night he returns home where his neighbors cast sideways glances at the bright red, lifted hearse in the driveway or the coffin-to-coffee table transformation taking place on his front lawn.

"Halloween," he says, "that's the only time my neighbors love me. Any other time it's like I'm invisible."

Carroll, who has worked in the funeral industry since she was 18, wasn't allowed to prepare the bodies of her own grandparents for burial because it made her family uncomfortable.

Mike Carroll, a funeral professional with no relation to Lauren, recalled with bewilderment hearing people mutter "undertaker" under their breath when he'd walk by.

"It's mostly taboo because it deals with grief," Mike Carroll says, referring to death. "It's hurtful to discuss it."

The comment launched the group into a larger discussion about how American culture around death largely herds people into an abbreviated funnel of grief - some employers offer time off for bereavement in the loss of an immediate family member. But once that times runs out, the employee is expected to return to work, and life, unaffected.

Then there's that awkward period following a death where people don't know what to say or do, but feel compelled to offer some profound words, to somehow make the world bright again.

"Death happens every day all around us, but the trauma surrounding death, we do that," Carroll said. "We try to keep it hidden away in nursing homes and hospitals. ... We keep death undercover."

The group would tug for an hour at the veil of propriety they believe society has unjustly placed over what should be a "normal" topic.

They sat circled in the warm chapel with its beautiful, green stained-glass windows and festive carpet that, albeit fading, seemed perpetually awaiting the Christmas season. Six feet underneath is the dark, musty cellar where bodies were historically stored at Evergreen in the winter when the ground was too frozen to pierce with a shovel.

The cellar is empty now, but for a display casket resting on the pulley system that once hoisted the deceased into the chapel for final goodbyes.

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Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362

Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin

Facebook: Kaitlin Durbin

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