My Experience at the Death Café in Everett

Bonnie Johnson - Friday, January 24, 2020
My Experience at the Death Café in Everett

Solie Funeral Home and Crematory has stood in Everett since 1940, providing necessary services that not everybody may be planning ahead for. If you’ve ever driven down Colby in North Everett and witnessed mourners gathering or noted the parking lot jammed full, maybe you turned your eyes away and hurried along. Maybe you ruminated on a lost loved one, or took extra time to acknowledge those you still have.

Whatever path you took, Solie wants to talk to you about it. After several months of targeted Facebook ads popping up on my feed, inviting me to the Death Café hosted by Solie, I decided to go ahead and dive in. The event promised me that “At Death Café, people, often strangers, gather to discuss death. Join us for a directed discussion of death with no agenda or theme. Our objective is to ‘increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

After calling ahead to make sure my presence wouldn’t be inhibitory to other participants, I set the calendar date and prepared to wade in, with absolutely no idea what to expect.

I arrived five minutes early, to explore the scene and chat with the Funeral Director, Jon Gordon. The inside is serene but bright, with comfortable chairs, heavy furniture and tasteful regional art hanging on the walls.

Gordon shares some of the history of Solie and of the Death Café. Death Café originated in 2004 as the work of sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz, who organized the first. Web developer John Underwood picked up that foundational work and ran with it, created the usual framework to adhere to, which is what I experienced here in Everett. It was an informal but facilitated gathering of curious or soul-searching folk over drinks and sweets, exactly as Underwood put it together.

“It’s about destigmatizing death and getting people talking about it, as well as funeral homes in general,” said Gordon, a funeral director of 35 years. “For other people, this may be the last place they want to be, but for me, I like to point out that the first three letters of funeral spell F-U-N.”

Death Café is not grief counseling, a point that was clarified more than once. It’s just a discussion group. There is no professional counseling, just us.

Groundwork laid, we move in to join the gathering crowd of about ten people. We take our seats and I discovered not only is the gathering guided, there is a professional facilitator on site, Vicky. Vicky is bright and petite, with a blaze of purple hair and dark brown eyes. She is uniquely qualified to run the event with her professional background and her volunteerism in the End of Life Program, a program set in place to facilitate the Death with Dignity Act.

First, what you would expect: housekeeping items. There is a luxe chocolate and caramel cake on a buffet table along with iced water, tea and coffee. Where to find the restrooms, and overview of her role, what we can expect (the unexpected, as the topics presented by participants dictate the content we discuss) and we all make a go at introductions and share why we came.

I have lots of reasons why I came, so I share one of the most pressing, while suddenly a litany of names I don’t use anymore beginning floating up in my mind like leaf litter on the wind. I realize how little I spoke of death or the deceased, unless it was just the most recent.

Others are here because of a dire diagnosis, some to discuss removing negative stigmas, some are young, some older, with an equal mix of genders. As far as a demographical lottery goes, it is a good cross-cut.

The first topic to come up was Death Doulas, so my mind is blown inside of the first five minutes. A young widower shared information about it, including an educational site to become a death doula in Bellingham, ‘A Sacred Passing.’ Death doulas are effectively midwives performing the tasks of readying individuals to pass, as well as building family capacity to deal with an impending or imminent death.

Another topic quick to come up is that they’re very community and family based. Because Western Washington has a growing polyamorous or ethical non-monogamous community, death doulas are especially helpful in assisting these particular types of family structures navigate around death, as those families don’t fall into typical pair-bonded norms when it comes to family structure.

Moving on, various participants chime in on a litany of topics: how difficult it can be to obtain a death certificate, how families fall apart or fall together, how life is supposed to go on with a dry socket left behind where your loved one once occupied space. Opiates, suicidality, civil court disputes over end of life rights, the growing mental health crisis in our country, access to services for veterans, the topics flow. Vicky gently nudges us if the conversation lulls.

And then, laughter. Remarkably cathartic laughter after so many topics surrounding the concentric, molecular layers to death, dying, societal quandaries and family systems suddenly manifests, and just like that, here comes the F-U-N, as hoped for by Gordon.

The floor is left open, and we come and go to get cake and drinks, share at our own pace, until the last 15 minutes, which are reserved for burning questions.

For me, what I took away was an enhanced capacity to view others through a trauma informed lens. Everybody remembers their first experience with death, their own brushes with it, what we fear or embrace about it. When I exit the front door and head back to my car, my lens to view the world is flexed, prepared to absorb the human condition through this newest facet.

Want to join for the next one? It is on February 27th at 7pm, at Solie Funeral Home and Crematory on 33rd and Colby in North Everett.


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