Let’s Eat Cake and Talk About Death

Graduate Division

Cake and death are the foundation of “Death Cafés,” according to UCSF anthropologist Dr. Shelley Adler, PhD. At these gatherings, diverse strangers come together in small groups, eat cake and talk about death and dying.

Although it may sound like a macabre coffeehouse inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, the recent rise of the Death Café is actually part of a revolt against the taboo of death.

“Death is such an equalizing aspect of life,” Adler says. “It’s a fundamental experience for everyone, regardless of gender, race or class. Yet most people seem afraid to mention it, as if by naming it, we will hasten its arrival. As a result, end-of-life decisions can become traumatic, and quality of life is reduced.”

Adler and other proponents of the Death Café movement hope to remove the taboo. By talking more openly about death, perhaps we can improve not only the experience of dying but also that of living.

Director of Education at both the Osher Center and Zen Hospice, Adler hosted the first Death Café in San Francisco at UCSF. “It was such a powerful experience that we wanted to do it again.”

To that end, she teaches an integrative medicine elective, “Integrative Approaches to End-of-Life Care,” in which students participate in a Death Café.

Alder also facilitates a Death Café as part of the Zen Hospice’s Salon Series, which is open to the public. The next Death Café will be held January 29 from 6-8 p.m. (http://www.zenhospice.org/education/calendar).

Synapse had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Adler, to learn more about what happens in a Death Café and how she became a leader of the movement.

Synapse: What prompted your interest in the Death Café movement?

Death is such an equalizing aspect of life, and I find it fascinating to look at all the different approaches to it. In my own research, I’m interested in the end-of-life experience for under-served people who are not connected to any medical system, and how they try to make meaning out of their experience. And I thought, “Actually, I don’t know many people from any walk of life who are comfortable talking about death.”

The idea is not meant to be a morbid one of focusing on death. It’s to try to make death more familiar, so you can enhance the quality of your life — not only focusing on a good way to die but also figuring out what’s important to you, so you can live a good life.

Synapse: How are Death Cafés structured to get at these issues?

It’s so new to people, so there is often an open-ended question to get people talking. For example, “What do you wish were different about the way death and dying are handled in our society?” Or “How do you live your life differently, knowing that you’re going to die?” Those questions are broad enough that everyone can have something to say.

Synapse: How would you answer that first question? What do you wish were different about how death and dying are handled in our society?

I wish that death wasn’t so hidden. And I don’t mean that I wish people would experience trauma or pain or difficulty, but rather normalizing death so that it seems part of the life cycle.

The way it used to be in the U.S. was that you saw people as they were dying and sometimes after they died, and it was a normal part of life. Now, as you get close to the end of life, people act as if you’ve already died. And the end-of-life transition for many illnesses is very long — months and years. You can still have purpose during that time.

Synapse: It sounds like this would also be helpful for the people left behind.

Right. Are you familiar with ethical wills? [The idea is] what’s really of value to you isn’t just what you own. It should be what your values are, what you’ve learned and what’s important to you, what you wish for other people. That’s what was passed on.

When I did my interviews with the under-served, I found that talking to strangers [about these subjects] allowed them to find meaning. Victor Frankl talked to people in concentration camps and came up with this idea that if you find some kind of meaning in your suffering, you’re still suffering, but you change the quality of your suffering.

Giving your life meaning decreases your stress. Why should we wait until the end of life to do that? That’s the idea of the Death Café — it’s that opportunity to make something of it while you can.

A Death Café

January 29, 6-8 p.m.

Zen Hospice

273 Page St., San Francisco