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Talking death, with tea and crumpets

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Monica Doyle (left) and Jennifer Vines are behind Indiana's first Death Cafe. - MIKE ALLEE
  • Mike Allee
  • Monica Doyle (left) and Jennifer Vines are behind Indiana's first Death Cafe.

At a Death Cafe, people eat cake, drink tea and talk a topic many of us try our very best to avoid. A Death Cafe doesn't involve speakers. There are no religious agendas to promote. Nor is it meant to be a forum for grief counseling. Otherwise, almost all related topics are fair game. Everyone's equal participation, thoughts and ideas are encouraged. And to keep things light on such a potentially heavy subject, tea and cake are served.

To date, over 450 Death Cafes have been held in various cities throughout the world. New cafes are being scheduled almost every day.

Indy Indie Artist Colony will host Indiana's first Death Cafe January 11. Monica Doyle and Jennifer Vines, who will facilitate, hope many more will follow.

"We'd love to see this spread to other neighborhoods," says Doyle. "Anyone can be a host. After all, it's a subject without experts."

The Death Cafe model is based on the work of sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who began hosting the first "cafe mortals" in Switzerland in 2004. Six years later, an Englishman, Jon Underwood, heard of the concept, found it intriguing and began to host gatherings across the UK.

Underwood set up a small list of guidelines that he felt would be helpful and created a website where others could post their events and experiences. It's since grown into what some have labeled a worldwide "social franchise." Death Cafe has no staff, generates no funds and is run on a purely voluntary basis.

"A better awareness of death may enhance a better awareness of life," says Doyle. "Once you begin to talk about it, you remove some of the fear that most of us have and you start to ask, with the time that I have left, what is important? What do I want to accomplish and how do I want to live my life?"

Vines points out that the medical and funeral industries tend to dictate what the death experience means to our lives, and many times that means "not discussing or even acknowledging it, until it is too late to do anything about."

Doyle has volunteered for Eskenazi Health's No One Dies Alone program, which brings together community members without nursing skills with dying individuals to ensure they have companionship and support.

Vines developed a long standing interest in the subject after taking a Death and Dying class during her years at Florida State University. Both had been separately following the Death Cafe movement before they decided to host an event in Indy during a lunch meeting. Not only will Saturday's event be the first Death Cafe to be held in Indiana, it will also be the first for both women.

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