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UWS 'Death Cafes' Don't Shy Away From Making Dying a Laughing Matter

By Emily Frost | November 14, 2013 8:08am
 Death Cafés are centered around freeing people to talk about death and dying openly. 
Death Cafes on the Upper West Side
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UPPER WEST SIDE — They're putting the "fun" in "funeral."

Upper West Siders are flocking to monthly forums focusing on death and their organizers say the events are upbeat and uplifting. 

Two new public gatherings, called "Death Cafés," have emerged in the neighborhood, with strangers talking about what it's like to die, how to talk to a dying person and whether they believe in an afterlife, organizer Jane Hughes Gignoux said about the group she runs from her home.

"There’s such a taboo about talking about death and dying," she said. "It's simply an opportunity to talk openly."

The two-hour sessions are guided yet open-ended, said Gignoux, who began running workshops on dying after she volunteered in Harlem with HIV-positive children.

Word of mouth alone has drawn as many as 15 participants to each of the meetings, which began in the spring and include people of all ages.

Facilitator Barbara Simpson, who runs a separate group at the Society for Ethical Culture, said discussion topics at her Death Café include eco-friendly burials, yoga for bereavement and "putting the FUN back in funeral." Laughter is not infrequent, she said.

For instance, Simpson recalled posing the question, "What do you want to do before you die?" When two women simultaneously shouted out "de-clutter my apartment," the whole group fell into hysterics, said Simpson, who works in hospice care.

The meetings — which were moved out of Simpson's home after they grew to more than 45 people each — start with a harpist or pianist playing meditative music. Participants then break into small groups for discussions, take a yoga break and do 15 minutes of meditation.

Death Café attendee Marjorie Lipari, 68, said she was surprised to find herself laughing out loud during the salons.

"[The conversations] brought not only a reduction of the fear [of death,] but humor," Lipari said. "It uplifted people."

After losing her twin brother, sister and other parents, Lipari said she feels like she has a "master's degree in [death]." But she said she's happy to have the opportunity to talk about the subject because she doesn't want to live in denial. 

"[The café] feeds my humanity," she said.

Death Cafés were first held in Europe and spread around the world, giving people a chance to talk about a topic often considered off-limits, organizers said.

Talking about death with strangers lets people explore the topic free of the emotional baggage that often comes with discussing it with family, Gignoux said.

"People go away and they say, 'I feel so much better' — and part of that is that people suddenly have permission to talk about something that has been suppressed," she said. 

Simpson said she adds to the nurturing atmosphere at her sessions by serving gluten-free cake.

"The fact is that there is a very upbeat feeling to [Death Cafés]," she said.

The Society for Ethical Culture's Death Cafés, led by Simpson, are free and take place the first Sunday of every month from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., as well as every third Wednesday from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. For further details, email bsmpson@gmail.com.

Gignoux's Death Cafés are also free, held every second Tuesday of the month from 6 to 8 p.m. They require registration by emailing her at janehg@lifedeathbeyond.com.