At a recent two-hour Death Cafe shepherded by Gignoux, six participants, most in their 60s, talked easily over tea and biscotti.
Kathryn Janus, 66, noted that death involves “a lot of ‘why?’ Why did a 12-year-old with leukemia die? Why did a cat get run over?”
Marjorie Lipari, 68, talked about the death of her twin brother 16 years ago.
“What does one do with that kind of hole?” she asked. “It never occurred to me he wouldn’t be with me for my whole life.”
Robb Kushner, 62, discussed the differences between Christian and Jewish funerals he’d been to, noting the open casket at a Methodist wake. Alicia Evans, in her 40s, then told the tale of a man known to be a bit “scruffy” in life who was nicely tidied up by the embalmer.
“He looked so good in the coffin I wanted to give him my number,” she said, cracking up the group.
Janus said afterward, “I like that we laugh.” But Lipari said she wasn’t sure she would ever be entirely at ease about death.
“My ego is going to be opposed to death because that’s ego’s job,” she said. “My goal is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable about death.”
Other subjects commonly brought up at Death Cafes range from financial planning to suicide. They include cremation, memorial services, loved ones’ last moments and the possibility of an afterlife.
Underwood and other organizers emphasize that the discussions are not meant to be counseling. “There’s no guest speaker, no materials, because we’re not guiding people to any conclusions.”
And while the sessions attract a wide range of religions, races and ages, organizers note there are more people 50 and above than in their 20s.
Jane Bissler, incoming president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling, a professionals’ group, said she approves of the Death Cafe concept because people can speak freely about a subject that has become increasingly taboo.