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Chatting with strangers about suicide: My night at a Twin Cities Death Cafe

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

One Sunday evening this September, I stepped into a northeast Minneapolis art gallery, signed my name next to a human skull, and poured myself a glass of red wine. Then I joined a group seated in a circle, and we started talking about taking our own lives.

Ours was not a Jonestown-style get-together. The Yellow Tail contained no cyanide, and an accompanying homemade lemon cake was both delightful and (to my knowledge) arsenic-free.

This was the latest monthly meet-up of Death Cafe Twin Cities, the local chapter of an international organization that wants to make talking about dying less weird. The movement started in London in 2011 and has spread around the globe; to date, according to their website, there have been more than 7,075 Death Cafes in 60 countries.

That old adage about death and taxes being life’s only certainties isn’t quite right—one of those things you can evade. (Just ask our president.) And yet, we’re far more likely to gripe about the IRS with friends and family than to talk about that other inevitability. The merits of cremation vs. caskets, or the particulars of power of attorney... these things are considered rather uncouth to discuss in mixed company.

Enter Death Cafes, which aim to normalize death by encouraging visitors to willfully, calmly, and practically confront the reality of mortality. Preferably over snacks.

Death Cafes aren’t support groups, nor are they therapy sessions. Folks at our meeting have different reasons for attending: Some have buried children, others are former goth kids long fascinated with the hereafter, a few simply stumbled across the event on Facebook and arrived at Rogue Buddha Gallery out of curiosity. (One woman is better acquainted with the afterlife than most—she was revived against the wishes of her DNR, something that’s weighed on her ever since.)

“I’m starting to think about the next part of life,” a 65-year-old who just went on Medicare says by way of introduction. “And one of the next big events is death.”

I’ve been to funerals where the talk around dying is less frank.

The evening is led by Christin Ament, who runs the Twin Cities Death Cafe chapter. She’s an integrative health practitioner by day, which means she does everything from prayer to drumming to massage—anything that’s not Western medicine, essentially—with palliative oncology patients. She’s also a death doula or “death midwife,” who assists in the dying process in a way not unlike birth doulas do for the living.

Once we’ve said our hellos, Ament has us break into three smaller groups; at more than 30 people, this is the best-attended Twin Cities Death Cafe to date. She then hands out sheets of paper with numbered discussion prompts that tackle the loose topic for today: assisted suicide.

Over the next hour, we’ll hear from people who were raised to believe in an afterlife and others who were told there wasn’t one. (For the record, neither camp seems certain—a group of fundamentalists this ain’t.) Our assembly includes mental health professionals and a few folks who work in hospice care, but also students and businesspeople and artists—and at least one reporter. We learn about things like VSED (Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking), an exit strategy used by those nearing death who want to hasten their end. We balance the relative merits of pursuing treatment after a terminal diagnosis or letting the disease have its way, and the emotional, spiritual, and financial considerations each course of action entails.

Maybe it was Nicholas Harper’s otherworldly art staring down from the walls, or maybe it was knowing I’d never have to see these people again, but for me, the strangest thing about the experience was that it all felt oddly natural. I wouldn’t presume to speak for the others in attendance, but I didn’t have a big a-ha moment, nor a radical self-discovery. There were no overwrought conclusions about the Meaning Of It All. Conversation touched upon the super-serious—What is the Self? What is Consciousness?—but also the early-’90s dark comedy What About Bob? (I will say I felt exceedingly seen when a woman shared how she didn’t cry about a close family member’s passing, but sobbed uncontrollably after the death of her cat. Grief sure is funny that way.)

I wouldn’t presume to speak for Ament, either, but I get the sense that that’s sort of the point. We’re all going to lose loved ones—sometimes suddenly, sometimes to agonizing, years-long decay—and then, someday, we’re going to shuffle off this mortal coil ourselves. Maybe our death will achieve some supreme significance. More likely, it will matter to a handful of people who love us and not at all to about 7.5 billion others.

Shouldn’t we talk about it with those people first? Shouldn’t we brace for the impossible-to-avoid conclusion to our time here rather than cramming all the planning and drama and “I love you’s” into a few months or weeks at the end?

And shouldn’t we do it over cake? 

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