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An Evening At Ashland’s Death Café

Liam Moriarty/JPR

These days, we openly discuss a lot of things that used to be considered too delicate for polite company: sex, money, childbirth …  If there’s one taboo left, it’s the subject of death. Recently, JPR’s Liam Moriarty attended a social gathering held specifically to talk about the end of life. 

On a recent weekday evening, I find myself among nearly 50 people, milling around inside a Jewish community center in Ashland. We’re chatting, sipping tea and munching on cupcakes topped with tiny neon-colored skulls made of sugar.

And no, it’s not Halloween …

A woman calls the meeting to order …

“Welcome! It’s really nice to have you here. My name is Selene Seltzer, and I’m one of the facilitators for the Ashland Death Café.”

Seltzer is a co-founder of the group. She explains …

“The Ashland Death Café is a local expression of a global movement to talk about death. And to talk about how death can inform the way that we live.”

After a group introduction, we break up into small discussion circles, each led by a facilitator. My group is led by Jennifer Mathews. After laying down the rules -- be a good listener; be respectful of others’ experiences; leave your dogma at the door – Jennifer starts off with what led her to Death Café.

“My partner died a few years ago,” she says. “And she and I and our community and our families had really open conversations about death. And it was amazing.”

Death Café has a confidentiality policy, but the folks in my group agreed in advance to be recorded and to allow me to use their first names.

As we go around the circle, we each talk about why we came tonight. For some, it was our first time to a Death Café. Others had come back again and again. Nearly all of us have undergone the death of someone close to us.

Some have experienced states of being that led them to see death in a new way. When Eric was 21, his brother died in a car accident. Soon after, he says …

“His spirit showed up to me in complete form, like I had him right in front of me after his passing. And he spoke to me. It was so viscerally true.”

Michael relates his own near-death experience, from hypothermia during a wintertime backcountry retreat …

“And I went on a somewhat traditional journey, down a pathway while I was unconscious, but very conscious.”

Michael says he had the sensation of joyfully moving from one dimension to another. After he was revived, he recalls …

“It took me several weeks to fully integrate back into ordinary life. The contrast between the feeling of heading toward something that was open and free, from a constricted state in this world, which I hadn’t particularly thought of before.”

Christine welcomes the chance to talk openly about death.

“My mother came from a generation and a background where she didn’t even tell us that she had cancer,” she says. “And mind you, she was an RN.”

That cultural denial, Christine says, has a huge personal cost.

“What I grieve more about then, in some ways than her loss, is the denial she was in because we couldn’t ever really talk about it.”

Kate, a funeral director, agrees.

“We don’t do ourselves any favor when we miss out on the reality of the situation,” she says. “And we do that often because we are a death-denying culture.”

Over the course of an hour and a half, the discussion ranges widely: personal stories about death, spiritual perspectives on death, social attitudes toward death. There are a lot of laughs -- and a few tears.

As discussion time wraps up, Jennifer, our facilitator, says these sessions always leave her feeling hopeful.

“Or somehow, again oddly, maybe, optimistic to be talking about death and dying, that a group of almost all strangers can come together and share so deeply.”

We may not like to think about it, but we all know that, someday, we will die. The folks at Death Café hope that sharing -- face-to-face -- our thoughts, stories and fears about that fate will lead to a greater understanding and acceptance of death as a natural part of life.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.