Death Cafe

Death and cakes in Nyack.

Death Cafe at Dying To Bloom in Nyack, NY     all photos by Tom Bailey except where otherwise noted

Death Cafe at Dying To Bloom in Nyack, NY    all photos by Tom Bailey except where otherwise noted

It was a double pleasure to head off to Nyack, New York on a sunny August afternoon; first, I would be able to attend my third Death Cafe, and second I would visit Dying To Bloom, Kerry Potter-Kotecki's "Natural Burial Boutique," the only shop I know of that offers the chance to browse through and purchase objects of use or interest around green burial.

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I met Kerry at the National Home Funeral Alliance conference last September, where any image I had of a burial shopkeeper was pleasantly turned out. The common thread between us, as between everyone who reads this blog, is our interest in green burial and green funerals. We already knew each other through social media, and Kerry carries copies of The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide on her shop shelves. In her element she shone. Her success was obvious in the number of guests--two dozen men and women crowded her picturesque shop to talk death--and in the media representatives on hand. Members of WRCR AM radio, a representative from Oprah, and a summer intern for Science Friday came to gather ideas for stories and to support Kerry.

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Kerry opened her shop "because I am passionate about supporting Green Burial. We need to take an objective view of our current practices and consider what is best for our environment and our soul. To me the answer is simple - return to nature.

"The name Dying To Bloom started with a radio show I hosted to promote conversations about death and funeral/burial choices. Its dual meaning is literally dying to bloom as in natural burial, and as a symbol for taking advantage of the opportunities you have in life and to blossom before you die."   

Kerry grew up in Rockland County, a triangular-shaped designation that borders New Jersey and a long stretch of the Hudson. Nyack is on the western bank of the river, near the Tappan Zee Bridge. I know more about the eastern side of the bridge, which is where Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has Riverview Natural Burial Grounds. Nyack is built on the cliffs that line the western bank. 

"On a local level my shop just had to be in Nyack. it's an artsy, open-minded town with a creative vibe. There are artist studios, yoga studios, cafes, theaters and now a Natural Burial Boutique."

photo credit www.facebook.com/pg/Dyingtobloom

photo credit www.facebook.com/pg/Dyingtobloom

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Sooo--why a Death Cafe? As deathcafe.com says, "At a Death Cafe people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives."  

"I was actually slightly hesitant about holding my first Death Cafe because I did not want to frighten people away from my business. Ironically that is also why I decided I should host Death Cafes--they were started to alleviate fear and unease in discussions on death.  So far each meeting has been unique, respectful and inspiring!"

This was the seventh Death Cafe at Dying To Bloom and most people came wanting to talk about death in the crowded circle around caskets and candles. Each Death Cafe takes on the spirit and meaning of the people who happen to gather for that particular day, and a number of cancer survivors set an urgent, determined tone to the need to address after death care. Coupled with that were several young women whose eagerness wasn't colored by sadness. One of the questions that came up was how to get young people interested in natural burial, not always easy to do.

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Kerry's commitment to green burial goes beyond her shop to dreams of finding land in Rockland County for a green burial cemetery. She opened the Green Cemetery Fund through the Rockland Community Foundation to collect tax deductible donations. "Rockland has a large senior population. We are only 40 minutes from Manhattan and a cemetery here could serve the Tri-State area." 

On Kerry's counter, presided over by friends and family, including her daughter, sits a box inviting people to contribute to her dream. If you are interested in helping, go to http://www.rocklandgives.org/donationspage.html. The Green Cemetery Fund is listed there.

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DEATH CAFE: Discuss death without averting your eyes.

"What's the one thing you have to do to get to heaven?" was the ice-breaking question asked at my first Death Cafe. The people sitting in a circle of folding chairs came up with all sorts of possibilities. After four or five answers, Marilyn told us.

"You have to die."

We looked at each other, and relaxed. This wasn't going to be a morbid, or religious, chat. Possibly it could be fun.

I've written and posted about Death Cafes for a couple years now, and yesterday finally got my chance to attend what sounds on the surface like one of the more peculiar discussion groups "with no agenda, objectives or themes...(not) a grief support or counseling session." "At a Death Cafe people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives" (www.deathcafe.com). The Death Cafe model was developed in London, has no staff, and is run in local groups on a volunteer basis by people like Stephanie Kip, founder of this cafe in northern New Jersey, who are dedicated and not afraid to spend alot of time shepherding something along. There have been 4645 Death Cafes in 49 countries since September 2011.

Death Cafes always gather around food and drink and talk. In green burial we emphasize communication; making it easier for families to discuss afterdeath options and death in general. I'd come partly to peddle The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide and was startled to realize when the moderator, a pastor at a local United Methodist church, asked us to introduce ourselves and say why we were there, I could talk for hours about green burial but I don't really address my own death. Yet there I was.

The subject for the cafe was obituaries: What would  someone say about us or inscribe on our tombstone if we had to put aside our accomplishments? There were 12 people and we split into two groups. Most were older than me but everyone was there because it was a space to not feel strange about discussing death. Half had been to at least one previous meeting.

As I worked overtime to think of myself outside the box of what I have done professionally, only pat answers occurred until I realized that my coming to child- and eldercare relatively late in life had made me into an empathic person. 

"As a teenager I was afraid to babysit, but you could say about me that now I have a profound understanding that what I do and say is remembered by children and affects their lives."

Why shouldn't we come up with the good stuff about ourselves while still alive? When my father died my family gave our mother the gift of a celebration of their joint lives rather than a memorial service for just him.  

After sharing, we discussed the future of this Death Cafe, which had been meeting for free in the library where Stephanie worked. She was retiring her job and we'd have to pay going forward, which isn't part of the cafe plan. Nor did we want to be associated wth places of worship; housing for the elderly or infirm; or senior citizen centers.

I brought copies of my guide plus postcards but didn't put them out; this was a place to discuss emotions and ideas, not practical information about what to do when death occurs. There are places for that. Not many venues exist where people don't shut down and avert their eyes at the simple mention of death.

Will I repeat the experience? Possibly, but most days for me are already devoted to some aspect of death. To find your own nearby Death Cafe enter your zip code on the website. It's a bit confusing as the cafes are listed as past or future events, but you can find contact info for organizers who can tell you more.

You can even start your own Death Cafe.