When Valerie Sirani and Amy Brown hosted the first gathering in Baltimore known as a "death cafe," they did not know what to expect.
"If five people showed up, I would have been happy with that," Brown told Catholic News Service. Instead they had 29 participants, ranging in age from 18 to 85, for a two-hour discussion over coffee and cake of issues many have a hard time discussing with their friends and relatives.
Sirani, a palliative care nurse, and Brown, who works in gynecological oncology at a hospital, both have a longtime interest in issues surrounding death and dying. When they heard through a mutual friend about the social movement known as death cafes, both wanted to bring the idea to their town.
The first death cafe took place in 2011 in London, based on the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who hosted what he called "cafe mortels" in Switzerland and France years earlier.
As of July 2013, about 1,000 people in England, Wales, the U.S., Australia and Italy had attended death cafes, according to the movement's website at www.deathcafe.com.
The objective of the gatherings is to "increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives," the website says.
As a nurse working with women suffering from cancers of the reproductive organs, Brown said she has found "a huge part" of her work "is the survivorship piece."
Brown said she sees "a lot of death anxiety in the United States – among health professionals, patients, friends and family."
But if people are "willing to talk about death and dying, they are willing to talk about life and living" and more willing "to accept death as a reality," she said.
There is no set agenda or schedule for the death cafes, in order to allow participants to dictate what they would like to talk about. The only rules are that no one should try to sway other participants to a particular ideology or belief system and that the discussion must be respectful and confidential. And there also must be cake or some other nourishment.
"It's just natural and inevitable (in discussing death) that religion or a belief in the after-life or a higher power will come up," Brown said.
"But the idea is to keep this as ideology-free as possible so that everyone will feel comfortable and no one will feel judged."
At the Baltimore death cafe, which took place at a bakery in the summer of 2013, participants broke into small groups for discussions. One group jumped right in, Brown said, while others took advantage of a container filled with questions designed to promote conversation.
The questions, written by Brown, ranged from the serious – What is a good death? Do you want to be cremated or buried? How is death portrayed in films? What scares you about death? – to the whimsical – If death were a person, what would it look like and sound like and what clothes would it wear?