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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."

The concept also took hold in France. But it spread rapidly around the world only after Jon Underwood, a 41-year-old father of two, teamed up with psychotherapist Sue Barsky Reid to bring the concept to England in 2010. They wound up publishing a guide in 2012 to setting up a death cafe.

They now maintain a website, DeathCafe.com, as a "social franchise" where people can learn about the movement and register their own not-for-profit groups. More than 550 have signed up everywhere from Poland to South Korea.

"So many people are afraid of talking about it. Talking about it and planning for it and thinking about it and trying to imagine how you can prepare makes you feel that at least in a small sense you have some control," said Karen Garber, 49, a hospice nurse who leads a monthly death cafe in Petaluma that draws 20 to 25 people.

Death cafes are not designed to be group therapy, but rather something between an intellectual salon where the sole topic is death and a 1970s-style "rap session" where people are free to open up about a wide range of issues related to death in an environment that feels safe and accepting.

Topics can range from the practical, such as advanced directives and other legal means to have some control over one's own death, to philosophical questions like "What is a good death?," to social debates about passive euthanasia and assisted suicide, to existential ponderings about whether or not there is an afterlife.

People come for a variety of reasons. Some work in the health and human services fields. Others may be dealing with a dying friend or relative or finding a way to live fearlessly with a serious or terminal illness.

Stephanie Sugars has advanced cancer. Two years ago, the 57-year-old Kenwood woman started sharing her feelings, impressions and experiences about death and dying in a blog.

She has also attended a number of death cafes in the area, each group a little different. Sugars says she has no fear of death but takes comfort in the companionship and intimate conversations at death cafes, being with people who can relate to her feelings.

"I can borrow from their experience. I'm not so isolated," she said. "We have such a taboo about talking about death in our culture. To be with people who are ready, willing and able to talk about it strengthens me."

Death cafes aren't just about dying. The main objective, in fact, is to help people "make the most of their finite lives," according to DeathCafe.com.

Kathy Hoare, a Santa Rosa real estate broker, was motivated to organize a death cafe at her church, Unity of Santa Rosa, as a way of enriching her life.

"All we have is this moment, and our moments will not go on forever. They're not unlimited," she said.

"I don't want to be regretful when my time comes. I don't want to be surprised. If I can make my death easier by being aware of it now and by eliminating regrets and not getting caught off guard, I will probably have an easier time letting go."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.