Lively discussion dominates Death Cafe

Joe Shatus' mother died Saturday morning, June 22, the same day that his father died 31 years earlier.

Late that afternoon, the retired fundraiser, 67, sat at a patio table outside the market at Belvedere Square. There, 30 people, young and old and from around the region, had gathered for the Baltimore area's first "Death Cafe," a frank, 90-minute discussion with strangers about death and the issues surrounding it.

When it ended, Shatus reflected on a day that started with a death in the family and ended with an organized talk about the end of life and the meaning of it all.

"It's just strange," said Shatus, of south Baltimore, whose mother, Rose, died of natural causes in hospice care at age 96. "It's kind of reassuring in a way. No one wants to talk about (death), really. Here, it was no holds barred."

The Death Cafe concept is growing nationwide and in Europe and Australia, and a June 16 New York Times article about the movement in 40 cities may have swelled attendance at the Death Cafe here, said Valerie Sirani, of Lake Walker, a nurse and co-organizer of the local discussion.

Sirani said she wasn't expecting more than 10 people to show up, despite publicity on social media. Neither was Shatus.

"I was surprised at how good the attendance was and how willing people were to share their experiences," Shatus said.

Also surprising to many older people there was the high number of young people, several still in college. Among them were four friends from the University of North Carolina, all summer interns in Washington.

One of them was Connor Belson, 20, of Columbia, wearing a cap backwards. He said even as a young person, he wanted to hear people's thoughts on death "and how to approach it."

Another was Noam Argov, 20, who is majoring in political science and has aspirations to be a diplomat. But she said that after attending the Death Cafe, she was also inspired to volunteer at a hospice facility and perhaps host a Death Cafe on campus at North Carolina.

The discussion also made her value her life even more.

"I just want to make sure that I do things that count and that I come to terms with (death) now, so that I'm not preoccupied with death."

The goal of the Death Cafe was partly to "increase your zest for living," said the other co-organizer, Amy Brown, 43, of Reisterstown, who is also a nurse. She and Sirani were introduced by Lizzy Miles, of Columbus, Ohio, who started the nation's first Death Cafe and knew both nurses through the Association of Death, Education and Counseling.

Brown and Sirani, both former hospice nurses, met for the first time in May, at the restaurant Atwater's, in Belvedere Square, and made plans for the Death Cafe.

"She (Sirani) said, 'June 22 works for me. Does that work for you?" Brown recalled.

They served cake at the Death Cafe and Brown told attendees, "You are making history."

For older people, reasons for coming ranged from being in the health care field to "curiosity," said Gene Litz, 87, of Cross Keys, a retired architect.

The event was serendipitous for Caroline Wayner, 46, of Roland Park, who is writing center director at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, who is taking classes on aging, for her own interest.

"I want to help people become more comfortable with death," Wayner said. "We're just not good in our country at dealing with aging and dying."

Much of the conversations at each table were prompted by "icebreaker" questions such as "What is death?" and "What would the world be like if no living creature ever died?"

David Allen, 51, said if no one ever died, everyone would be "tired." Allen, a former intensive care nurse, who lives in Lake Walker, runs Breathwork Works, an organization that teaches breathing as a way to relax and increase personal awareness.

Some subjects were a little touchy, like a discussion of whether to prolong a dying person's life?

"Just because you can doesn't mean you should," Allen said.

"Do we have to talk about that?" asked Beth Lopez, 59, of Radnor-Winston, a social worker in the cancer outpatient center at the University of Maryland Medical Center in downtown Baltimore.

The talk turned to whether people would want to have an open or closed casket when they die.

"If I don't see (the body), there's no closure," Allen said.

Others, like Lopez, said they would prefer cremation.

For some, religion did not play a big role in the discussions.

"I like to focus my energy while I'm living," Lopez said. "I don't think about the hereafter too much."

There were dark discussions about whether people fantasize about murder and how they would change their lives if they knew how they would die.

"If your goal is to have a wife and four kids, you might want to get the wife and four kids before whatever is going to happen to you happens," said Lee Savoy, 51, who lives near Good Samaritan Hospital.

One question drew a unanimous answer, when Brown and Sirani asked the audience to raise their hands if they would like to have another Death Cafe.

Every hand went up.

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