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Start the most difficult conversation American isn’t having- the conversation about our end of life preferences

Chicago ‘Death Cafe’ Draws Curious, Diverse Crowd

Downtown Evanston’s Curt’s Cafe became a hot spot for end of life discussions

A Chicago-area “Death Cafe” brought dozens of strangers together for an evening of frank talk about dying– along with plenty of coffee and cookies. Death Cafe, a growing movement that started in Switzerland, is one that is spreading quickly throughout the U.S. and was the first event of its kind Tuesday in Evanston, IL.

Julie Lamberti, 64, and Arlene Wanetick, 58, talk about their end of life wishes
Julie Lamberti, 64, and Arlene Wanetick, 58, talk about their end of life wishes

“I’m amazed that so many came, they have something they want to talk about,” said Viki Noe, who co-organized the event. Noe said she understands how some could find such discussions disturbing. She first learned of Death Cafe on Twitter while researching hospice care. “I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’ ”

Considering where, when and how attendees want to die was the focus of the discussion; and most concluded that they want to die slowly, at home and with family. “I hope I die from an illness that allows me closure and time to say goodbye to people,” said social worker Julie Lamberti, 64, who attended her first Death Cafe. “I’ve noticed there is not an openness in our society about death.”

Most in attendance agreed that “good deaths” are not ones that happen in hospitals. “I want to die in my sleep, peacefully, and I want time to say goodbye to the people I care about,” said 58-year-old Arlene Wanetick, a member of Chicago’s End-of-Life Care Coalition. “In America, we all think we’re going to live forever. We have become a youth-obsessed society.”

These talks could encourage more advance care planning, since less than 25 percent of patients die at home. While Death Cafe is not intended as therapy, said organizer Dan Bulf, it is meant for deep discussion about how participants want to live and how they feel about death. “For the next two hours you’re all right,” Bulf said. He urged attendees to suspend their judgements and to accept other beliefs.

“I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’ “

By the end of the two-hour event, many attendees were conversing like old friends and smiling. Some offered others rides home. “I needed this,” one woman exclaimed.

The Death Cafe website states the goal of these cafes: “To increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

Other recent cafes have formed in New Mexico, Michigan and Maine. An all-male cafe was held last year in Chicago. Noe said she is inspired to organize more in the coming months.

Similarly, Elements, a Chicago-based cremation company, will be hosting cafes in the fall. “We realized the importance of opening up the conversation, and how simple conversations about our own demise are needed in our community,” Ronette Leal McCarthy, Elements’ legal counselor, told LMM.