Death Cafes tackle the taboo topic to help folks make most of their lives

by:  TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Death midwife Nancy Ward, at Fairview Cemetary in Scappoose, helps people plan their deaths. On the ground are objects that people can choose to be buried with — a quilt that can serve as a shroud and a variety of traditional death symbols and items.   Jamie always thought she’d like to be buried under an oak tree in her rural Clackamas County backyard. Nearing death after a long bout with cancer last fall, she had Eric, her partner, contact Elizabeth Fournier, who specializes in do-it-yourself funerals through Cornerstone Funeral Services.

Fournier came out for a visit. She told the couple that over the coming weeks they would talk about what type of funeral Jamie wanted, and that there were questions and details almost nobody considers ahead of time. Fournier would start by making arrangements with the county planning commission.

Jamie showed Fournier the site she had chosen. Eric said a carpenter buddy of his would make a special casket and he would dig the grave. For the funeral he would have their house painted lavender, Jamie’s favorite color.

Jamie died unexpectedly the next morning before sunrise. Eric was inconsolable, Fournier says. He had come to terms with Jamie’s death, but not with his inability to follow through with the plans for the funeral — the farewell — his partner had wished.

Fournier set about doing what often can be three months of work in three hours. She called a friend of Jamie’s to contact family and friends and have them meet at the house, and to help Eric decide on a blanket or quilt for Jamie’s burial shroud in lieu of a coffin. She had a friend of hers use Eric’s tractor to dig the grave.

By sundown, Jamie had been washed in her own home by the women in her family using lavender-scented sponges. She was shrouded in a lilac, hand-loomed tapestry which had hung on the wall of her bedroom, and gently placed in a cart for a short procession to the oak tree.

After a few words and a half-hour of group singing, a sapling, a new tree supplied by Jamie’s brother, was set in place to mark Jamie’s resting place.

Today, Fournier wishes there had been time to talk with Jamie and Eric about countless aspects of death — not only funerals and burials, but the meaning behind the rituals they could have selected or discarded. She wishes, in fact, that Jamie and Eric could have had the opportunity to attend one of the Portland area’s increasingly popular Death Cafes.

“They didn’t really know how to go about doing it,” Fournier says. “Having conversations and having that openness and having other people to bounce ideas off and give them emotional support would have helped.”

Portlanders embrace movement

Death Cafes have become another one of those phenomena that didn’t start in Portland but flourish here unlike just about anywhere else. Every few weeks a Death Cafe is held somewhere in the Portland area for people to sit around and discuss a subject most consider taboo — from funerals they’ve attended and envisioned to intimate anecdotes about loved ones who have died. Most start with an open-ended question: “Why are you here?”

“Sometimes they get off and running with that and 90 minutes later they’re still talking,” says Holly Pruett, who organized Portland’s first Death Cafe at the downtown Bijou Restaurant a year ago.

In most cities a handful of people, or maybe as many as 25 or 30, show up for Death Cafes. Pruett was shocked when 70 appeared at the Bijou. One Death Cafe, at the downtown First Unitarian Church in September, had more than 100 people, and Pruett had to turn folks away from an event at the downtown West Cafe in March because the room could only hold 80. Pruett has a list of more than 500 people who want to be notified before each new event.

Pruett says it isn’t surprising that Portlanders would take to Death Cafes or what she calls the “death movement.”

“People are hungry to have this conversation here,” she says, citing a number of possible explanations. Portlanders have a low rate of church and synagogue affiliation, which leaves many residents without a religious funeral as their default. Nationally, Oregon ranks third among states for cremation over burial, but there are fewer established rituals for a cremation funeral. Hospice care is better established and accepted here than in many places, and many of the Death Cafes attract a number of people who provide end-of-life hospice care. Green burials such as Jamie’s also are gaining in popularity in Oregon.

by: PHOTO COURTESY: ELIZABETH FOURNIER - Friends and family take part in a DIY burial by carrying Ray to a grave dug by his grandson on Rays rural Clackamas County property.And, Pruett says, Oregonians are notoriously cheap. A traditional funeral and burial can cost $5,000 to $10,000, almost all of which can be saved if family and friends perform the necessary tasks themselves. Unlike some states that require the use of a funeral home, Oregon law allows families to act as their own funeral directors.

“Funerals are a bad brand now,” Pruett says. “Many people will go to them and say, ‘I don’t want anything like that for me.’ Because it’s impersonal and conducted by someone with no relationship to the family or the deceased.”

That’s understandable, says Melinda Smith, a Presbyterian minister working as a hospice chaplain in the Portland area. “I’ve been to cookie-cutter funerals,” she says. Those sort of empty funerals, she says, often occur when people die without belonging to a faith community such as a church.

“It’s like never going to the doctor until you’re sick,” she says. “You don’t have that relationship built up.”

There is a reason traditional funerals have survived, according to Smith. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, all those traditional words, there’s something to be said for words and rituals that link us with the experience of human beings throughout time,” she says.

Nevertheless, Smith says she’s a supporter of Death Cafes and the movement to take the taboo out of death, including people inventing their own rituals.

“I think it’s lovely, actually,” she says.

Pruett calls herself a “death celebrant” and she has clients who want her to help them design their final ceremonies, from eulogies they want read to the music they want played. Scappoose resident Nancy Ward performs similar work and is one of a handful of locals who call themselves death midwifes. She educates families about death and funeral possibilities, she helps with the final paperwork, and sometimes she conducts the funerals.

“When you’re born you go from creation to manifestation. You just do the opposite when you die,” Ward says by way of explaining her title.

Misconceptions abound

In 2009, the Legislature adopted a bill making it illegal for people such as Ward to charge for home funerals. So Ward provides the funeral education and support for free, but charges as a death midwife, usually $40 to $80 for each hour she spends helping the dying confront often uncomfortable questions. A lot of her encounters start with dispelling a number of commonly held misconceptions.

One is that the body of someone who has died at home must immediately be taken to a funeral home. Historically, Ward says, many cultures left bodies in repose for days, allowing family members and friends to pay last respects. She recommends that clients leave bodies at home for a few days so family members can more fully deal with the finality of the death. She supplies dry ice to keep the bodies from decaying in the home.

by: PHOTO COURTESY: PHYLLIS PETTEYS - A DIY funeral can include transporting a body to the grave site. Here, musician Mark Pettey, in the back of a friends 1962 Chevy Suburban, awaits transport from the Portland area to his familys Eastern Oregon pioneer cemetary.“Your mind, your psyche, needs a connection to the death of the body. When you are washing a dead body of somebody you love, you are becoming intimately aware that that person that you love does not exist in that shell,” Ward says. “How many times do people say, ‘I can’t believe he’s dead?’ You say that when you haven’t seen the body.”

A second misconception, Ward says, is that a funeral home has to take a body away. She works with families who, after keeping the body at home, take the body to a cemetery in the back of the family van.

Ward has attended five Portland Death Cafes. She suggests that the Cafes’ local popularity has more than a little to do with the name, which reflects Portland’s taste for the unusual.

“Death Cafe. Those are two words that have no relationship to each other. It’s not so much in your face as it is a mind twister,” she says.

Cafes are stepping stone

Ward says she’s noticed that people attending Portland Death Cafes are full of questions. “It’s as though they have been given permission to ask and discuss this subject that everyone is secretly interested in,” she says.

But Ward feels the cafes are only a start. “In order for this to become truly meaningful and beneficial it has to go deeper,” she says. In her view, sitting around talking about death needs to give way to more visceral discussions. She wants to hear people at the Death Cafes explaining what it is like to be with people as they are dying, or working with the dead.

Seattle has Death Cafes nearly every week, says Terri Dilts, one of the organizers. But most are smaller than Portland’s, with about a dozen people attending, and most attendees are middle-age or older. She says at Death Cafes, so far, she has met a death doula, a man who says he died and came back to life, and a woman who plays the harp while people are dying.

“I think, ‘How many times can I talk about death?’” Dilts says. “But the more people I meet, the better informed I am, and it’s really intriguing.”

Pruett has tracked the attendance at Portland Death Cafes and found that two different age groups predominate — seniors 65 and over, and young adults 25 to 34. Some, she says, are looking for conversations that can forestall grief. Most, she adds, appear to bring along a considerable amount of fear.

“People remain afraid because we’re still pathologizing death,” she says. “Death is seen in our culture as our failure.”

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