On Saturday morning, Brian Long will arrive first and unwrap the cakes, cookies and coffee.
He’ll greet the people who show up at Manheim Township Public Library.
And they’ll talk about death.
The library is hosting a death cafe, a concept designed to be more a discussion group than a grief support group or a counseling session. Death cafes like this one have become popular throughout the world.
Death cafes give people a chance to talk about a difficult subject in a relaxed setting. The cafes held locally have resonated with those who have attended.
“A lot of times, when you bring up death and dying, people are very, very uncomfortable talking about it and have this sense that they have to switch to a cheerful or more positive topic,” says Meghan MacNamara, who attended one of the local death cafes.
While death can be a taboo topic, she was able to share her thoughts and opinions about death with a few strangers in a judgment-free zone. They didn’t agree on everything, but that was OK, she says.
Death cafes got their start in 2011. Jon Underwood, a British Web designer, was looking for a way to encourage people to get together and talk about death. Since then, cafes have popped up in more than 40 countries with this objective: “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
The man behind the local death cafes is Brian Long, lead coordinator for the regional office of Link to Aging and Disability Resources’ regional office. The agency is part of a nationwide network connecting seniors and adults with disabilities to resources that can help them.
Long often hears from people asking about many topics.
“The topic of death ought to be talked about,” Long says.
Not talking about it before it happens can lead to problems among loved ones, he says.
MacNamara, 37, signed up to go to a death cafe because she works with health-care professionals who write about life and death situations. A Lititz resident, she has progressive multiple sclerosis.
“So reconciling my own mortality and figuring out where I’m headed and how much (decision-making power) I want in terms of planning my own death has been extraordinarily important to me,” she says. “It’s not a conversation you can just have with most people.”
People ranging in age from 22 to 82 have shown up at the two previous cafes held at Manheim Township Public Library.
They have gathered in small groups and talked. If the discussion dries up, facilitators can ask a question to keep conversation flowing. A lack of conversation hasn’t been a problem, Long says.
People have talked about loneliness as well as such legal topics as living wills and power of attorney. They’ve discussed how they want to be remembered. They’ve gotten into the spiritual question of afterlife and the practical question of what happens to someone’s body after death.
People want to know if they can be buried at home. (The answer is yes but there are rules and permits that need to be navigated.)
MacNamara struck up a friendship at the cafe and found it meaningful enough to return for a second conversation. Now she’s signed up to be a facilitator.
After Alexis Gingrich’s grandfather died, she went to the closest death cafe she could find, in Gettysburg.
There, the conversation flowed. They talked about “green burials,” death theorist Caitlin Doughty, who has a YouTube video series called “Ask a Mortician,” as well as their own experiences with death.
“I felt that I was finally able to talk about something that my family doesn’t understand, my friends don’t want to talk about because it’s considered morbid, but I finally got to talk about it, which was great,” says Gingrich, 23, of Reading. She’s since facilitated at several local death cafes.
If he can find more facilitators, Long would like to have death cafes all over Lancaster County, especially in churches and nursing homes.
Until then, he’s going to aim for hosting four death cafes a year, starting with Saturday’s.