Health

Death Café helps Angelenos talk about a taboo subject

Shari Wolf, founder and funeral director at Natural Grace Funerals and Cremations in Los Angeles, talks about her work with other Death Cafe participants.
Shari Wolf, founder and funeral director at Natural Grace Funerals and Cremations in Los Angeles, talks about her work with other Death Cafe participants.
Stephanie O'Neill/ KPCC
Shari Wolf, founder and funeral director at Natural Grace Funerals and Cremations in Los Angeles, talks about her work with other Death Cafe participants.
From left clockwise: Death Café participants Bobbi Japka, David Orr, Mattie Rickman, Rosco Snyder, Brit El Mabourakh, Betsy Trapasso, Julie Ann Miller and Shari Wolf.
Stephanie O'Neill/ KPCC
Shari Wolf, founder and funeral director at Natural Grace Funerals and Cremations in Los Angeles, talks about her work with other Death Cafe participants.
Death Cafe organizer Betsy Trapasso.
Stephanie O'Neill/ KPCC


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Most people would probably think the idea of spending a few hours of a beautiful weekend afternoon talking about death is a bit odd, even morbid. 

Not Betsy Trapasso. And she's compiled an email list of about 200 Los Angeles-area residents who agree with her and are eager to participate in the Death Cafés she organizes throughout Southern California. 

"It’s actually a really comforting thing to people," Trapasso says of the conversations. "People actually laugh and have a good time and connect with each other. [They] support each other and they feel relief."

Trapasso, a 20-year veteran of hospice social work, says getting people to talk about death is a long-time passion that prompted her to take on the volunteer role of Death Café organizer in 2013. So far, Trapasso says, she's facilitated about 30 of these conversations, mostly in private homes. 

"I had read about it on the Internet and thought, 'Oh, I want to do one of those,'" she says of the concept that started in London in 2011 and was inspired by the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz.

 Since then, the non-profit Death Cafés have been popping up throughout the nation and worldwide, with more than 2,000 held so far, according to the Death Cafe website. 

The objective is simple:  to foster open conversations about death as a way to bring more meaning to life.

"This is so necessary and so needed," says Trapasso.  "People in the U.S. and across the world really need to talk about death and end of life and what’s going to be happening."

The Death Cafe isn’t a therapy session, or a support group.  There are no invited speakers, no end-of-life planning. In fact, there is no agenda. 

"It's basically tea, cake and free-flowing conversation...about death," notes Trapasso.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Trapasso brings together an eclectic group of eight people invited from her email list. They range in age from 18 to 81 and include a couple of writers, an artist, a funeral home director, a podcaster and a professional medium.

After the group shares tiramisu and tea and lemonade, 81-year-old Bobbie Japka of Encino is among the first to talk. The retired psychologist tells the group how her so-far successful battle with lung cancer has provided her life with an unexpected gift:

"I’m more attuned to the little things," she says. "Something happens and I’ll say, 'thank you universe. Thank you for letting me see this, thank you for letting me share it.'"

Screenwriter Matt Moore of Santa Monica, 37, recounts how the journey he and his family have traveled since his younger brother, Andy, died two years ago has brought them closer to one another. 

"It was refreshingly primal. Everything was stripped down," Moore says of his family's grief and how it processed the loss."It's going to sound funny but it was enjoyable almost – despite the fact that it was devastating – it was enjoyable  in how we processed it, if that makes sense."

Mattie Rickman, who volunteered her home for the gathering, points out that death is something we all share.  "It's important to talk about it because it's our one commonality," the 25-year-old notes.  "Every living organism has this one common thing that we all experience, whether you're a plant or a starfish." 

Scholars in the field say discussions like this are healthy because they help underscore that death is a natural part of life.

On this day, the conversation runs the gamut of topics. There's an in-depth discussion about the green burial movement, which embraces eco-friendly, nontoxic and biodegradable materials. There's talk about the unique ways to memorialize those who've died, such as cremation jewelry and tattoo ink formulated to contain a loved one’s ashes.

The group also chats about how Americans and other nationalities view death.

"My father is from Santiago, Chile," says Julie Ann Miller, the medium. "And there is a lot of superstitious beliefs centered around what he taught us as children...it was [considered] disrespectful to talk about the dead." 

But the topic that generated the most spirited discussion:  Whether reincarnation really exists.

Rosco Snyder of Encino told the group he’s pretty much a non-believer.

"Personally I’m an atheist," the 31-year-old budding writer says. "I don’t think anything happens beyond what’s left of the energy within your body."

The conversation then shifts to talk of quantum physics and whether it might prove the existence of an afterlife.  David Orr, a 52 year-old artist from Laurel Canyon, tells the group that seems plausible to him.

"It's  fascinating when you find technical reasons that belief systems actually hold water," he says, "Then you can’t write it off as woo woo."

Perhaps not, Moore  agrees. But, he asks, is it really important that we know for sure?

"If  [reincarnation is] science based...great. If it’s pure made-up human emotion, fine," he says to murmurs of agreement from Orr and the others. "On the whole spectrum, I don’t know, I’m good with it wherever."

After about two hours, Trapasso brings this Death Café to a close.  But most of the group - including its youngest member, 18-year-old podcaster Brit El Mabourakh - sticks around for more conversation.

 "I think that's the opportunity afforded when you don't know the people but have one theme  in common," says El Mabourakh.  "For whatever reason, people are so open with strangers."