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Death Café serving up more than tea and cake

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Death is a natural part of living. So why, as a recent survey by Caring.com demonstrates, do more than half of American adults die without a will? Why do we have "life" insurance and not "death" insurance? And why do so many go out of their way to avoid the subject?

Death isn't usually part of "polite conversation," said Dave Knutson with A Little Help North Fork Valley, a nonprofit connecting neighbors with neighbors to help seniors thrive. The organization is sponsoring a "Death Cafe" at 4 p.m. Tuesday, June 27, at the Creamery Art Center in Hotchkiss.

A Death Cafe is not a grief support group, nor is it intended to provide counseling or help with end-of-life decisions, said Knutson. While they may evoke morbid images, Death Cafes are actually social events where people gather to talk about this taboo subject in a safe and comfortable setting. They can even be fun.

They are also quite popular. According to DeathCafe.com, the model was developed by Jon Underwood and based on the ideas of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. The first Death Cafe was held in the United Kingdom in 2011. Because Underwood believed that sharing food and drink in a comfortable atmosphere is healthy, he served tea and cake. The event quickly caught on. Today, Death Cafes are held in more than 50 countries.

While mostly middle aged and older people attend them, in March a Death Cafe in Paonia attracted a wide range of ages, including some in their 20s. That was surprising, said Steve Lyons, who hosted the event. The success of the event, known as a "social franchise," demonstrates a desire among all ages to discuss this touchy subject. "People want to talk about death."

It's an easy subject to avoid, said Lyons, who gives talks on alternative and green burials. But it hasn't always been that way. Until about 100 years ago, people died at home, surrounded by family, which took the mystery out of it. Today, he said, 80 percent of people die in hospitals and nursing homes.

By talking about mortality, people often find more meaning and joy in life, said Lyons. There is no agenda for a Death Cafe. Participants break into small discussion groups and choose their topics. With an almost infinite choice of topics, if a person isn't comfortable with a certain topic, they can move to another group or suggest a new topic.

Lyons said he learned about the Death Cafe from Paonia artist/business entrepreneur Mary George. In 2014 they hosted a Death Cafe. It went so well that in 2016 they offered an unaffiliated event, "Conversations on Death," which also drew positive responses. Last March Lyons hosted another Death Cafe in Paonia. Because it was a success, they decided to hold one in Hotchkiss.

The event is free and open to all ages. And yes, there will be tea and cake.

DeathCafe.com, the official website of the Death Cafe, offers information on events, stories, shared experiences, suggested reading, and even a Death Cafe Art Gallery.

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