NORTHFIELD – Gloriana Ye wonders why her parents no longer wanted her to help clean her ancestors' tombs back in Taiwan.

Sitting in a small circle inside a stately classroom at St. Olaf College, Ye told a handful of other people how growing up, her family followed an April tradition where they'd visit cemeteries bearing gifts to honor dead relatives and cleaning supplies to tidy their resting places. She doesn't go along anymore, though: As she got older, her parents kept telling her they'd take care of it instead.

"I wish I can go," she said. "I wish I can learn more about my ancestors' legacy and be there to send my respect."

Talking about death and dying isn't easy, but St. Olaf students and faculty have tried to make it easier in recent months. Ye and other organizers have put on so-called "death cafes" in an effort to help people deal with a topic that's too often off-limits.

"It follows people," St. Olaf senior Grace Tillman said. "People bring that trauma with them all the time."

The concept started in 2004, when Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz decided to host a "café mortel" to create public discussions on the subject. His own wife died in 1999. The gatherings grew as more people adapted Crettaz's ideas; Jon Underwood brought death cafes to the United Kingdom in 2011 and created a website to spread the model.

A death cafe follows four general guidelines: They're always not-for-profit. They're held in a comfortable, confidential space. Organizers never lead participants to any sort of conclusion or action; the discussions flow on their own. And they always involve treats, preferably cake.

Ye brought the idea to St. Olaf, Northfield's resident Lutheran college of more than 3,000 undergraduate students on a bluff overlooking the Cannon River. A senior seeking her nursing degree, she worked at a nursing home where she heard many of the residents discuss dying and was struck by how little her college peers talked about death.

"It seems like there's a taboo when people talk about the questions of how and why lives end," she said.

The cafes have been a hit since Ye proposed the idea last fall. The university's Lutheran Center for Faith, Values and Community embraced it, providing space and funding for five cafes thus far. One was held just for medical students studying cadavers, while the others were open to the public.

The last one this year is scheduled for May 1.

"This space invites people to bring their whole selves, which includes their religious identity, their spiritual sensibilities, but it's not an explicitly religious space," said Deanna Thompson, director of the Lutheran Center. "Those spaces are where students can feel like they can explore these questions and figure out what it is they believe."

Ye and other interfaith fellows at the center run the meetings, asking open-ended questions for more than an hour on how people define death and what topics they'd like to discuss.

At Wednesday's meeting, a group of nine adults talked about the finite, inevitable end death brings to us all. They discussed what it feels like to watch a loved one die, what a good death means to them, what people should do to prepare for their deaths.

One person described how her grandfather's sudden death changed how her family planned for their future, and how her parents entrusted her with their burial plans. Another told a group how a grandmother drifted in and out of hospice care for a decade before dying at 104 — and what a relief it was for family members who no longer wanted her to suffer.

Yet another talked about how her son's church organized singing groups for people on their deathbeds, sending them off with song. And one person even pondered how she was going to follow her dad's burial plan to have a Viking-style funeral by setting fire to his body on a boat, which is illegal in Minnesota.

"People our age, we feel like we're invincible," said Caroline Anderson, another cafe organizer and senior majoring in psychology. "But death enters into your life at any time. You can't prepare for it."

College officials say they plan to continue the discussions next year, long after Ye graduates to take a nursing job at a cardiovascular ward in a Chicago hospital. They hope the lessons students take from these talks help them as they navigate their careers, their adulthood, and the rest of their lives.

"I definitely think we need a different way to talk about this in our culture," Ye said. "We're trying to reduce the friction so people aren't afraid to initiate these conversations."