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Sonoma County Gazette
Death Cafe

Dancing with Mortality
at a Death Café?

Jan 22, 2018
by Shepherd Bliss


“I have an appointment with death this evening,” I explained, smiling to friends. Startled faces revealed feelings of fear, disbelief, and a lack of understanding.

Mexico’s Day of the Dead is my favorite holiday. Whole villages go to the cemetery that night. Morbid? Not really, more like fun--feeding and dancing with one’s ancestors, remembering them in gratitude, teaching children to accept death. Indigenous cultures are more death aware than the dominant American cultures.

Putting “death” and “café” together may seem unusual. In the United States, many ignore our own mortality. Many Americans do not accept that they will surely die, much less talk about it, especially with strangers. On the other hand, eating at one’s favorite café is something to enjoy. Being in a café setting talking about death may not seem inviting, yet it can be invigorating.   

Death Cafes began in Europe. More than 5,400 monthly Cafes now exist in over 52 countries.Initiated in 2010 by John Underwood in London, they began in Sonoma County soon after that, with various facilitators over time.

Adults sit around tables, share snacks and tea. They talk about their experiences, hopes, and fears. The idea is to create a comfortable, informal, and respectful environment, where people can talk candidly.

Tess Lorraine has been facilitating them monthly since 2014 in Santa Rosa and began offering them in Sebastopol this January the third Friday of each month, 3:30 to 5 p.m., at theSebastopol Area Senior Center (167 N High St, Sebastopol, CA 95472 -, open to all adults. The Santa Rosa gatherings happen at theFountaingrove Lodge, 4210 Thomas Lake Harris Dr., Santa Rosa, CA 95403 ( on Saturday afternoons.

“As we age, conversations happen regarding degenerative and life-threatening diagnoses,” said Lorraine. “The cost of denial is lost opportunities for the wisdom, growth, and healing that can occur when we share authentically. Death is our final frontier and our lasting legacy.”

“Death, like life, is both a solitary experience and a communal one. Solitude and isolation are close companions, yet they are in many ways on the opposite ends of the spectrum,” writes Lorraine. “Some look forward to the solitary experience of dying alone; others want to be surrounded by those whom they love or by professionals who can help them manage.  Some would choose life under any circumstances; others want to be able to choose their death.” 

According to the website, “Our objective is to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their lives’…There is no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action.”

“A Death Cafe is a group-directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counseling session,” the website continues.

Death Cafés are not a place to proselytize, seeking to convert others to one’s beliefs. It is a place to tell and honor one’s stories, as well as to hear different perspectives.

They offer a structure and format that encourage conversation. Laughter is not unusual, especially as people get to know each other and feel comfortable enough to share in a safe, facilitated environment.

“It’s time to take death out of the closet,” one person observed. Death can awaken and enliven, as well as diminish and defeat—your choice. Now in my 74th year, I am closer to my death date than my birth date, here on my organic farm, where I notice decay and death every day, as well as in my own body and mind.

“Whenever we bring disowned material to light by acknowledgment through speaking it and sharing with others,” noted a Café host, “this releases life energy within us and lifts our burden of carrying the unspoken.”

“For everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…,” according to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

For more information and to get on the monthly email list for Sonoma County Death Café meetings:



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