A philosopher, a grief counselor and a photographer walked into a Tacoma coffee bar…
No, that’s not the start of a bad joke, but the genesis of an intriguing conversation known as a Death Cafe.
On the first Tuesday of every month, a small group gathers at the B-Sharp Coffee House in downtown Tacoma’s Opera Alley to talk about a topic that touches everyone, eventually. (And we don’t mean coffee.)
“There’s no agenda,” says Kelli Barr-Lyles, the counselor, childbirth educator and certified death midwife who started the T-Town Death Cafe group. “We’re there to talk about whatever comes up.”
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“The purpose is to give people the opportunity to talk about death in an informal setting — with no judgments,” says Marvin Will, who teaches philosophy at Green River College in Auburn.
“Everybody experiences this on different levels,” says Shannon MacFarlane, a Tacoma photographer who specializes in documenting the dying and grieving process for families. “Everybody buries someone who means something to them. Everybody dies.”
But not everyone talks about it. At Death Cafe, they can’t stop.
Everybody experiences this on different levels.
Shannon MacFarlane, photographer
The nonprofit Death Cafe movement started in Britain in 2011. Since then, it’s gone global, with nearly 4,000 cafes hosted in 40 countries. There’s even an online guide on how to start your own Death Cafe.
Death Cafes are not grief counseling sessions, although people who are grieving can attend and share their experiences. Discussions are more anthropology than psychology, trending more toward talk about cultural norms and funereal customs than expressions of personal grief.
“Sometimes we talk about grief or the afterlife,” says Barr-Lyles. “The only rule is that there has to be cake.”
Death Cafe founders say they’re not looking to lead people to any conclusion or course of action. And while mental health or other professionals might be involved, the originators discourage participants from promoting their own businesses through a Death Cafe. They also discourage financial sponsorship from groups with commercial, religious or political motives.
Recent discussions among Tacoma attendees focused on: “green” cemeteries (emphasizing the use of non-toxic, biodegradable materials that allow for natural decomposition of the deceased), home funerals (as opposed to funeral homes), palliative hospital care, suicide (assisted or otherwise) and religious beliefs.
One woman talked about her experience after a friend’s murder. When expressions of personal grief surface, they’re met with respect and deep listening by the group.
The T-Town Death Cafe attracts young adults as well as elders. Once, a couple came to the group on a date and took an active part in the discussion.
“They were looking for something different to do on a date,” Barr-Lyles says.
“You can come and sit and not say a word,” she adds. “You don’t have to give your name. Some people come once and never come back.”
The only rule is that there has to be cake.
Kelli Barr-Lyles, T-Town Death Cafe founder
Others, such as MacFarlane, are frequent visitors. She’s been coming to the Tacoma group since it began in November 2015.
A former family portrait photographer, she was inspired to change the focus of her work after a difficult pregnancy threatened her life and that of her son, who’s now 3.
Her images include hospital rooms, gravestones and funerals. She documents families at their most vulnerable, as they prepare to say goodbye to loved ones.
The images sometimes are hard to look at, and families always have the last say on which ones they choose to reproduce in print form.
Nearly half of her clients are families who have experienced pregnancy or infant loss, and she is a frequent visitor to neonatal intensive care units. She sees her work as a way for families to process what’s going on and a useful tool for grieving.
“I think of it more as compassion photography,” MacFarlane says. “You often have the opportunity to take pictures of multiple generations, all the aunts and uncles. There’s something tangible that comes from the community that builds when things start to fall apart.”
She came across the T-Town Death Cafe during an online search that connected her first with Barr-Lyles, then with the fledgling discussion group. She’s been a regular Death Cafe participant ever since.
Will, the philosophy teacher, said he was drawn to the group on both a personal and a professional level. His classes, which include students of traditional college age as well as older students, sometimes touch on the subject of death.
He’s always been interested in the cultural taboos that discourage people from talking about it.
“People try not to think about it and distance themselves from it,” he says.
Barr-Lyles worked first as a birth doula and childbirth educator, before venturing into her work with dying and grief.
“I started in birth and sort of evolved to the other side,” she says, although she still does some childbirth education.
The catalyst for her shift in focus came after her mother died of ovarian cancer in 2009. She was setting up the Death Cafe when her father died.
She held the first discussion just weeks after his death, and her friends turned out in support. But over the months, she says, Death Cafe has introduced her to people she might otherwise never have met.
“I’ve gotten to know people who come to Death Cafe,” she says. “We see each other once a month. It’s been a fascinating experience.”
Learn more about Death Cafe
Next meeting: 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 3) at the B-Sharp Coffee House, 706 Opera Alley, Tacoma. Before the meeting, there will be a discussion of the book, “Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying,” by Stephen and Ondrea Levine. The book discussion will start at 4:30 p.m.