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Downtown coffee shop opens conversation about death

Oct. 23–Cake, coffee and conversation overflowed on Sunday as about a dozen people, many who met for the first time, gathered to talk about a topic that doesn’t come up that often around the table — death.

Sue Malliard, of Conneaut Lake, and Barb Newcamp, of Meadville, organized the first Death Cafe Meadville at Tarot Bean Roasting Company, 260 Chestnut St. in Meadville.

A Death Cafe is a group-directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is not designed as a support group; the objective is to increase awareness of death with a goal of helping people make the most of their finite lives.

It is typically held as a pop-up event where people often enjoy cake, coffee and/or tea while they share their understanding, thoughts, dreams, fears and other feelings about death and dying.

Newcamp started the event with introductions and an explanation of why the gathering was planned. “Our western culture is behind. Death isn’t something that’s talked about,” she said. “The worst thing that can happen is that at the end of your life nobody knows what you want.”

As those gathered around the table shared their reasons for coming to the event, one woman who lives alone said she had come to find out what she can do to prepare for her death. She expressed concern because she lives alone and she prefers to have as little done as possible.

The woman seated next to her sympathized as she nodded in agreement and said, “Nobody gets out alive.”

As the conversation moved from person to person around the table, individual experiences of death were discussed.

One woman spoke of watching the process her father went through as he died. She expressed gratitude for a hospice nurse she called an “angel” for “walking her through what to expect.”

She described a peaceful systematic process that ended with something else left behind where life once was. She also described feeling that same sensation when she held her cat as it died.

Several college students among the group spoke of the difficulties they witnessed after a relative’s death. They spoke of emotional interactions between family members who hadn’t seen eye-to-eye but gathered together at services to “pay their respects.”

“Weddings and funerals,” Newcamp said. “Two occasions where we see a lot of family we don’t always see.”

A local chaplain commented on her experience with family interactions at the end of life. She told the group she sees a lot of fear, denial and issues between estranged family members when she spends time with someone who is near death. “People are stubborn until the very end,” she said. “I try to encourage reconciliation.”

“All families need to talk about their wishes and plan ahead,” Malliard added. “It’s really encouraging to have young people here willing to talk about this.”

While death is inevitable, the topic can still be uncomfortable, according to Malliard. It’s that uncomfortableness that she and Newcamp hope to overcome.

Statistics don’t lie and they don’t exactly paint a picture of longevity of life in Crawford County.

According to the Pennsylvania State Data Center, 130,000 Pennsylvanians died in 2015, mainly as the result of major cardiovascular diseases. Males were more likely to die from a variety of causes of death (e.g. cardiovascular diseases) than females in 2015. African-Americans had the highest death rates in the state, followed by White and Hispanic residents, while Asian residents had the lowest death rates.

Philadelphia County had the most deaths in 2015 at 14,708; however, Fulton County had the highest rate for all causes of death. Crawford, Greene, Carbon and Fayette followed Fulton as the counties with the highest rates for all causes of death.

The Death Cafe model was founded by Jon Underwood in 2011 in the United Kingdom. Underwood was inspired by the work of Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist and anthropologist who organized the first ” Cafe Mortel” in 2004. Crettaz also authored the book “Death Cafes: Bringing Death out of Silence.”

Underwood’s passion for changing the culture around death and end of life awareness is being continued by his mother and sister, following his death in June 2017. Underwood died suddenly from an acute form of cancer.

Newcamp and Malliard plan to hold a Death Cafe in Meadville on a quarterly basis. The next gathering is scheduled for Jan. 21. Fore more information on Death Cafes, go to deathcafe.com.

Lorri Drumm can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at lorrid@meadvilletribune.com.

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(c)2017 The Meadville Tribune (Meadville, Pa.)

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