Hubby Survives Death Cafe

Being the husband of a hospice chaplain can have its odd and trying moments, as you will see in Steve’s darkly comical anecdote below:

 A few years ago my wife told me about a nearby event called a “Death Cafe.” I was instinctively leery of anything with such an ominous-sounding name, but she seemed enthusiastic about being able to promote her hospice book there so I decided to try it out. Even though it was already evening, it was considerably warmer and more humid than the average summer day. The event was on Park Street in Montclair, New Jersey in a fairly upscale neighborhood, so I wasn’t too concerned about a lack of amenities. Unfortunately, my original fears proved to be justified as the meeting was on the top floor of a house in what would be called an attic in a less swanky town–and which had no air conditioning. One of the primary topics of discussion was whether assisted suicide should be legalized in New Jersey, but I was distracted from concentrating on that matter. The temperature in that packed single room was near 120 degrees with almost zero ventilation, so I tuned out whatever weighty issues were being discussed and quietly lay on the floor. I looked up to a majestic vaulted ceiling with outsized musical notes, and realized to my surprise that it was the beginning of the song: “You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.” I remembered that Herman Hupfeld, the composer of this catchy tune featured in Casablanca, had lived in Montclair. I had no idea that I would ever be in his attic, or why he never had air conditioning installed.

I concluded soon afterward that I didn’t want to remain in the house, so I went outdoors to walk around the back yard. The old construction hadn’t been modernized, and as it was getting dark, I didn’t realize that there were some sharp black iron pipes located in unexpected places. I banged my head against one of them and soon began bleeding profusely. Not knowing what to do, I remembered that in the uncomfortable attic were several tubs of ice cubes for the drinks, so I went back to put ice on my skull. When I walked in several people screamed when they saw me: blood was pouring out of my head down my body and looked much worse than it actually was. Fortunately more than one physician was present; two of them poured water over the wound and applied ice with towels, and within a short while the flow had mostly subsided. When they saw that I was recovering, a few people remarked that it would have been ironic to have an actual death at the Death Cafe. My wife never got the opportunity to mention her book to the other attendees. I had mostly blocked this experience from my mind until I heard on the radio that assisted suicide just became legal in New Jersey a few days ago, when I immediately recalled the details of that sweltering evening. The fundamental things apply as time goes by.


Steven Jon Kaplan regularly writes quirky stories on his website, true contrarian, as a side show to his main focus on contrarian investing, which is about unfollowing herd behavior in the financial markets.  He is a financial planner. The link to his site is

For more of my own writing, check out  my microblogging on

Death Cafes: Home of the Death Deniers?

Am I avoiding dealing with death by writing the kind of posts I do on this blog? Am I merely playing at talking about it because I often find a humorous angle on this topic? Some people may think so, because that is how they reacted to a newspaper article online that explained another avenue to death awareness, the Death Café movement. Death Cafes are meetings over coffee and cake that take place all over the world in a safe agenda-free environment, where people can talk about such concerns as how they want to be remembered, what their experiences with the death of loved ones was like and how to appreciate life more.

Many comments about the cafes were quite receptive or just plain curious. But the ones that were not seemed to arise out of some intense and persistent subterranean flow of emotions. The negative commenters roared that participants in Death Cafes were pretentious and were the biggest death deniers of all. On the face of it, that seems like saying that instead of a serious discussion, those attending a Death Café or the similar Death Over Dinner get-togethers are seeking entertainment, much as what one may experience at a séance or by reading a novel with a title like “Tall Tales from the Dead.”  That sentiment would be easy to rebut as well as to make fun of simply by carefully reading the article they were responding to. Far more instructive, however, is to tap into the subterranean currents crashing here and dashing over there.

Perhaps some of the derisive comments arise from hostility toward the “leisure class” who have the luxury of spending time to talk about abstractions like what they want on their epitaph, and who wish to impress themselves and others with how forward-thinking they are. Possibly in a similar vein, what’s afoot for some readers is resentment from having experienced years of care giving and the agony of a loved one’s slow deterioration and relentless descent into death. Hearing “Have some dessert and let’s chat about death,” must clash with that experience like viewing the movie Mash upon the heels of taking in The Killing Fields.  Or what this could be about is their own terror of taking up this subject, and thus they may be projecting their own death denial onto the very people who, however timidly and tentatively, are taking this subject on.

And to be honest with myself, what might the kernel of truth be in their dismissiveness? Do I distance myself from the downside of death by recalling charming anecdotes and writing with a humorous touch? I like to think that is not the whole story, though it may be a protective layer that makes approaching it ultimately possible, like the way a scuba diver’s mask allows her to see what lies ahead in the otherwise dusky waters. I like to think Death Cafes and my blog posts and all the other exposure to this topic will take us nearer and nearer to the searing enhancement of the living moment that looking death square in the face entails.

Related article:

“Death Cafe”–Not Exactly a Last Supper

Before I knew what a “death cafe” referred to, I pictured a collection of skulls clacking away as they helped themselves to a buffet, with soft foods and liquids being the most favored by far. “Death cafe?” How could food and death be juxtapositioned? One of the leading graphics in an article that  unveiled the meaning of this phrase showed elegant blue and white dishware obediently standing in a holder. A skull took up the center of each plate, hogging all the blue, leaving the white to fill in the periphery. Written on the rim was “Bone appetit.” See that? I’m not the only one who thinks like I do.

“Death cafes” are part of a movement to break cultural taboos against openly discussing such topics as how we want to be remembered, how to bring up the subject of dying with loved ones and how we want our funerals to be conducted. The food part, making this subject a bit easier to swallow, usually consists of beverages and snacks.The very first death cafes began in 2004 and really took off in 2011. The organizers say that by now approximately one thousand people have attended them in countries such as England, Australia, the United States, and Italy.

My husband Steve and I, both of us curiosity seekers, went to a death cafe in someone’s home  the middle of this month. We helped ourselves to some snacks–the best one was guava paste and cheese spread on crackers–and waited our turn to answer the question of why we  were there. Many people said they were open to discussing it because they had lost a loved one at a tender age, or they themselves were young when someone very close to them had died. My answer was that I wanted to see what people were saying about this topic and that I thought I might get ideas for my blog posts. (See?)

We then had to complete the phrase, “Death is……” Naturally I said, “Death is at the edge.” I say naturally because my book title is “Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died” (Pen-L Publishing) Later when we broke into smaller groups, I said that when I contemplate this edge, it throws life, which is on the other side of that edge, into sharper relief.

I figured that I would have to forgo retrieving any humorous gems from this particular event, but luckily someone said, “Oh, I thought this event was called a “Death Cave.” “Death Cave?” Oh, is that where thoughts on death end up after we chew the fat? When Steve and I laughed about that on the way home, he said “that sounds like the Flintstones were going to host the event.” It’s about time. I never have ever heard Fred and Wilma  address the issue, have you?

For related article, see