Through open discussion (and coffee and cookies), the movement encourages people to talk about death

Lizzy Miles likes to tell people she knew about death before she could talk.

Before she was born, Miles’ mother carried a child to full term, but he died shortly after birth. Even after death, he was a lingering presence in Miles’ life.

“They talked about him all the time,” Miles said of her parents. “They talked about him like he was real, like the perfect brother that I couldn't live up to because he would have eaten his vegetables and he would have cleaned his room.”

Death has followed Miles throughout her life. She went to her first funeral at age 3, and all her grandparents died by the time she was 16. By her 30s, she had lost more than 15 family members. After her mother died, Miles became a hospice volunteer. Then, at age 40, she left corporate America behind to become a hospice social worker.

Miles rattles these facts off as if she’s recounting what she did yesterday. Her casualness about a heavy topic — perhaps the heaviest topic — might strike some as odd, but for Miles death is just a part of life, a part she is happy to discuss with anyone who needs it.

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“If I mention what I do, people suddenly disclose their death and dying stories [to me],” Miles said. “In an elevator somebody told me about their parents dying, a poker table in Las Vegas, the craft store aisle. ... I think when I say that I work in hospice, I'm suddenly a safe person that they can have that conversation with, when they may not be able to talk with their circle of friends or their family.”

Realizing that more people were in need of a space to talk about death, Miles hosted the first Death Cafe in the U.S. in July 2012. Death Cafe started in London in September 2011, created by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid (also Underwood’s mother-in-law) and inspired by the ideas of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz.

Today, Death Cafes are held around the world, and anyone who follows the guidelines (and supplies the coffee and treats) can host one. The goal is simple: “At a Death Cafe, people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death,” the website reads. Miles, who has hosted more than 40 Death Cafes, uses a small group model. Attendees rotate between groups so they have a chance to talk to a variety of people.

“I didn't have to guide the conversation at all. All I really [said] was, 'Tell the other people at your table what brought you here,' and people talked for two hours,” Miles said of her first Death Cafe. “That's the amazing thing about these events; you don't need to and you shouldn't give them topic suggestions, because the people that come out to attend a Death Cafe have something on their mind.”

Helyn Marshall attended Miles’ Death Cafe in March in Clintonville. Marshall, the accessibility manager at the Wexner Center for the Arts, was interested in bringing Death Cafe to the Wex — the second one is Sunday, Nov. 17 (a first took place in July prompted by the Barbara Hammer exhibit) — but she also had a personal reason for attending. At the time her mother-in-law was severely ill, and Marshall wanted advice on how to talk to her young daughter about death “without painting a big, black hole.”

For Marshall, it was helpful to talk about death with strangers rather than friends and loved ones because it took “some of the charge out of it.”

“Everybody’s sitting at this communal table trying to figure it out together. And there’s cookies,” she said, laughing. “Everything is better with cookies.”

Marshall sees Death Cafe as a perfect fit with the Wex because so much of art reflects life and the human condition. She points to the Wex’s summer exhibit, “Barbara Hammer: In This Body” as an example. The exhibit focused on illness and death. Hammer died from ovarian cancer in March.

Marshall said no one is expected to have some “emotional epiphany” after attending Death Cafe. For her, it was much more practical. She left the event realizing she needed to make a will. She said one attendee was shocked to learn she didn’t have one and really hammered the importance of a will home to her.

“Your life is your responsibility, but your death is your responsibility, too, to some extent,” Marshall said.

When Miles decided to host her first Death Cafe, she originally thought it would help people become comfortable with talking about death. But that’s not what happened.

“It made me realize, if you're not comfortable, you're not going to come to an event where you talk about death and dying for two hours,” Miles said. “But it still meets some kind of need, because it [has] spread so far and wide. I think it's really [about] creating that safe place for the people who do want to talk.”

Correction: The piece initially said this was the first Death Cafe at the Wex. It's the second; the first took place in July and the piece has been updated to reflect this.