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Social discussions where the topic is death

  • Stephanie Sugars, right, speaks with her friend Zahna Arnold after taking part in the Death Cafe discussion group at the Oakmont Village Association on Wednesday, February 5, 2014. The group discusses issues surrounding death and dying. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

When Ed Sutter had a massive heart attack last May, it completely changed how he thinks about both his life and his death. A man seemingly blessed with good health for most of his 72 years, he was suddenly struck by an acute and unfamiliar awareness of his own mortality.

Now he wants to talk about it.

"Most people don't want to talk about it at all until it slams you in the face," says Sutter, a retired chemistry professor and salesman.

Sheila Madden also wants to talk about it.

"I guess I have a deep belief that there is nothing, if you would put it on the table, that is frightening," said Madden, a trained psychotherapist also in her 70s.

"The fact that we cannot talk about death, that it's such a bad word, seems to me to be a big problem."

She and Sutter have dropped by "Cafe Mortel," a regular gathering where the conversation is all about one thing — death. It may sound morbid, but the point is the opposite. Marte Turner, who organized the "cafe" in Oakmont after experiencing her own brush with death last year, is hoping it will make people feel more comfortable, and less fearful, about something that everyone faces.

It seems to be fulfilling an unspoken need. The group went from three people to more than a dozen, growing by a few every month.

Within the past year, several other so-called death cafes have cropped up around Sonoma County. A new death cafe at the Unity of Santa Rosa Church, on a rainy Saturday last weekend, drew 36 people who dropped by for tea, cake and conversation about one of life's most difficult and painful topics.

It's part of a movement that began with Swiss sociologist and death cafe pioneer Bernard Crettaz, who says his mission is to free death from what he calls a "tyrannical secrecy."


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