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Tabling Taboo: Death Cafe Patrons Talk Mortality

It's a hot Sunday afternoon in Tampa's historic Ybor City, but that doesn't stop coffee lovers from popping into the "Blind Tiger Cafe" on 7th Avenue for their caffeine fix.

While patrons sip their lattes and iced coffees in the front room, Cat Martin and her husband Phil Malthus set up in the back for their monthly "Death Cafe."

It's an event that eschews the idea of death as a morbid topic.

“I want to change the paradigm that says we can't talk about it,” Martin said. “I like that it's (Death Café) not experts. It's not a place for selling to people or telling them what to think. Each Death Cafe is made by the people who turn up and talk and listen. We need to talk about death and dying and grief and loss and we've become unpracticed.”

Martin sets out a cake topped with lemon candy slices. She offers up a slice to Linda Tien – today’s only attendee.

Tien, a recent medical school graduate, found the Death Cafe on Events are also posted on the cafe's Facebook page.

"I had a couple patients when I was in medical school who opted for end of life care,” Tien said about why she came to the café. “I just felt kinda baffled because I'd never really experienced patients, people, going through the dying process."

The first Death Cafe was held in London in September 2011 to de-stigmatize talking about death over cake and conversation.

This isn't a funeral home pitching their business. Topics range from grieving and funeral practices to end of life care and advance directives.

Lizzy Miles is a hospice worker who organized the first death cafe in the United States four years ago in Columbus, Ohio. The conversations she's heard vary widely.

"People talk about books that are popular that they've read. They tell personal stories,” Miles said. “There are people that are facing their own mortality. There are people that have lost loved ones and tell grief stories. Then there are the philosophical debates about cremation versus burial.”

So far, there have been more than 3,700 Death Cafes in 38 countries. They're all marked on a world map on DeathCafé.com, along with guidelines for starting your own cafe. It must be free, it must be open to everyone and it must be without agenda.

“I have had so many complete strangers, when I tell them I work in hospice, suddenly start telling me their personal stories about death and dying that made me realize that while we say there's a stigma about talking about it in the United States, there are pockets of people out there who do want to have that conversation,” Miles said.

Back at Ybor's Blind Tiger Cafe, Cat Martin continues her conversation, which was inspired by death cafes in Sarasota and Ocala she visited while preparing to organize her own.

Martin, who has worked in home-based health care in various countries, including her native New Zealand, works mostly with the dying. 

She started the Tampa death cafe four months ago to help combat what she considers a "deathphobic society.”

"I don't think that dying in and of itself is traumatic,” Matrin said. “But I think dying in a deathphobic culture is traumatic. I think we need to change the way we die, the way we experience death.”

Death cafe isn't the only food and conversation movement trying to deal with the topic. "Death Over Dinner" is a Christian-based movement that involves planning a dinner party, and inviting guests to talk specifically about end-of-life care.

Both Death Cafe and Death Over Dinner have a common theme besides the obvious: food. Martin said the social ritual of eating, and especially cake, is a very important part of these events.

"There are cultural ways of dealing with the divide between the living and the dead and food and drink is one way of stepping into the world of the living and being grounded in it,” Martin said.

After all, Martin said, Death Cafe is really about making the most of life until it ends.

“Being aware of your mortality is empowering,” Martin said. “What makes life so very precious is that it's finite.”

But it’s not for everyone, Lizzy Miles agrees.

“There are people who would never attend Death Café,” Miles said. “And I always say if it's not your cup of tea, then that's ok, too. I'm not out there trying to convince everyone that they should come to a Death Cafe. It's really only there for the people who want to come.”

Death Café organizers say it doesn't really matter how many people show up at the pop-up events, but instead, what they take away from it.

The next Tampa Death Cafe will be held on Sunday, Nov. 27 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Blind Tiger Cafe, 1901 East 7th Ave.

Daylina Miller is a multimedia reporter for WUSF and Health News Florida, covering health in the Tampa Bay area and across the state.