Sheila Duddy started the proceedings with a poem, then told the gathering she was going to hand out cards with quotes about death on them.
"If you don't like your quote, you can swap it out," Duddy said. "We have quotes from Jimi Hendrix and Leonardo da Vinci and many others. And, of course, I added 'The Hokey Pokey' because, as you turn yourself about, that's what this is all about."
And so begins the second convening of the Twin Cities Death Café, a casual forum where people speak about the unspeakable, the uncomfortable and the inevitable: death and dying.
A long-standing tradition in Switzerland, "cafés mortels" migrated to Great Britain in 2011 and then across the pond to Columbus, Ohio, last year. Now known as Death Cafes, they're held in 40 U.S. cities. The meetings are free, free-wheeling and free of dogma and conclusions.
"It's not meant as a grief group or a therapy group or even a class," said Anna Roberts, a hospice music therapist who started the local chapter with hospice nurse Duddy. "The core principle is increasing awareness and making the most of our finite lives."
At one Sunday's salon-like assembly, 17 people, about half of them under 50, met at Lakewood Cemetery's new mausoleum. (The café part would come later at nearby Gigi's.) They broke into three smaller groups, where all hands were invited to say why they came and read the quote they were given. Then they slipped easily into discussions about everything from cemeteries and ashes to the afterlife and elder care.
Not surprisingly, there was more than a little gallows humor.
Duddy, also a hospice nurse, recounted her favorite epitaph: "I told you I was sick." Kathleen Moore talked about divvying up her dad's ashes and keeping her container in a rather curious spot: "We would say 'Our father, who art in the garage …' "
That sparked some discourse about transporting ashes and dealing with the TSA, which led to talk of disposing of human remains and how they originally were interred inside churches until the stench became untenable, which veered to a paean to the beauty of a recent American Indian funeral.
"The conversation," Roberts said, "is definitely organic."
Not being afraid of fear
Two recurring themes appeared: fear of dying and our society's trepidation about tackling the topic.
Laurel Jung had a theory: "I really feel that the way we handle aging in our culture is why we have so much trouble with death."
That squares with what Jean M. Langford, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, has noticed.
"In general, mainstream American culture and media seem to valorize happiness, success, health, youth and active lifestyles, encouraging us to imagine a life that is strangely free of death and suffering," Langford said. "And many American social circles are organized to marginalize and isolate those who are aging, ill, disabled, suffering or dying.
"Privately we maintain relations with the dead. But in public life, relations with the dead are less evident in American communities than they are in many other communities around the world."
That's why most of us feel so uneasy when directly confronted with death.
"Many Americans feel embarrassed and tongue-tied around friends or relatives who are grieving death," said Langford, who noted that our "mourning rituals are astonishingly brief, leaving us to do most of our grieving with little social support."
When it comes to dealing with death, adults probably could learn from the younger set, said Death Café attendee Dr. Scott Schwantes, medical director of pediatric pain and palliative care at Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare.
Among dying children, "there's a larger acceptance," said Schwantes. "They're calmer because they're not inculcated into what adults do. They protect their families, especially the younger ones. They'll say, 'I don't want my mom and dad to be sad.' "
No easy answers
To make people more comfortable in talking about death, Roberts and Duddy combined the national Death Café's mission ("to create a safe place where people get together to talk about death and have tea and delicious food") with their own: "to uphold the broader objective … while supporting local arts, nature and institutions."
Those additions were a natural for the women: Roberts is a cellist and a board-certified music therapist, and Duddy is an artist who brought crayons to the local group's first forum in June.
It also seemed natural to have their second meeting at a beautiful new building in a classic city cemetery, because it integrates life with death.
"Even though the starting point of conversation is death-related," Roberts said, "the overall focus is to figure out how we can live better, being able to talk about death in a way that it can have a good impact on our lives. The core principle is making the most of their finite lives."
She and Duddy were inspired to start these conversations through their work, where they see old, ailing people "wondering not why am I dying, but why am I still living, why haven't I died yet?"
Discussions at the Death Café tend to bring up more tough questions than easy answers.
Is it better to die too late or too soon? Should care of the dying revert from medical facilities to the family home? How do we comfort the grieving? Should we have a bucket list?
"I feel like every time I come, I'll say something different about why," Nancy Gehrenbeck-Miller told her group. "I think I've always been scared of death. My dad died suddenly at age 59. [Pause.] But I'm not afraid to talk about it. [Longer pause.] That's why I came here, I wanted to feel connected. We're talking. Making it a cognitive thing, it's all good."