By María José Durán
The Death Café brings people together to talk about life, death, living and dying — over tea and cake in various locations around San Diego.
Jessica Dulliver lost her boyfriend when she was 18. She became suicidal. She grieved her first love’s death for 10 years. She’s in her 30s now, loquacious, skinny and energetic.
“I don’t want everybody to be so devastated when somebody dies, like ‘Oh my God my life’s over.’ Well, actually you might be one day closer, but it’s certainly not over,” Dilliver said.
Mojdeh Memarzadeh’s mother died of cancer last year. She drove all the way down from Los Angeles to sit around a table and talk to strangers about death. “I thought myself as very spiritual and evolved and then I realized how unprepared and illiterate I am about the subject,” Mermarzadeh said. A hippie aura surrounds this soft-spoken lady in her 50s.
Linda Fisher has never lost anyone close to her. She’s in her 60s, but her parents are still alive. No friends or relatives have passed away. However, as a caregiver, she has seen many patients cross the line to never come back.
“I have always been comfortable talking about death and the anticipation of having people participate in that journey while they are alive and my parents just don’t want to,” Fisher said. She wants to become a Death Café host in North County.
When Catherine S. lost her son, she felt a deep call to keep his corpse around for a minute. Wash him, watch him, and honor the remains of her offspring before the funeral. She was told that was wrong, and gave up on her wishes.
“I did share one thing about my experience that [Memarzadeh] validated. That was very meaningful for me, to know that I wasn’t crazy like everybody told me I was,” she said. Catherine, in her 70s, was the oldest in our little group.
And me … I’m in my late-20s, and I have already lost one of the most important people in my life. My grandmother María, who helped raise me. I shared how after her funeral, I paraded the streets of the tiny village of Níjar, somewhere in the desert of southern Spain, following the hearse and yelling cries of grief.
The Death Café is a monthly meeting where people gather to discuss death regardless of their age, origin, gender and background. It’s not therapy. It’s not a grieving group. It’s a friendly conversation about a topic that the guests are interested in.
Around 25 nervous-but-hopeful-looking people showed up Jan. 19 at the Kearny Mesa Library for the Death Café. Some were there for the first time, others had attended several meetings before. Of the latter, one has specific responsibility in the creation of the event. Karen Van Dyke is the founder of Death Café in San Diego.
“The challenge with our culture, especially in this country, is that we are death-phobic. Death is in the closet, but in Death Café, it’s about getting that conversation started,” Van Dyke said.
Van Dyke has always been interested in death. Her father died when she was 8 and she was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago. “I’ve lived [in San Diego] for a long time and San Diegans have been very good to me. This is my way of giving back to the community,” she said.
The guests were divided into five groups. In the center of each table, a plastic cup held little pieces of paper with proposed topics of discussion: Would you consider living close to a cemetery? Have you made any plans for your funeral? Where do you want to be when you die?
Our circle of five women in different stages of life who’d never met each other before had very different responses to those queries. The conversation flowed. Laughter arose out of every corner of the room. I didn’t see anybody crying.
The Death Cafe doesn’t align with a particular organization or agenda. “Everybody that wants to come to a Death Cafe is welcome, if you are an atheist, if you are Jewish, if you are Catholic, if you’re pro-life or not, it doesn’t matter,” Van Dyke said.
This event has been happening in San Diego about once a month since 2013. The next meeting will be held in the Community Room at Mission Valley Public Library at 2123 Fenton Parkway, next Tuesday, Feb. 16 from 1 to 3 p.m.
—María José Durán is a freelance writer from San Diego. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.