Arcata provides a safe space for people to comprehend the concept of death
Dr. Gina Belton has been working for years as an end of life educator and consultant; the idea of a “death cafe” came to her because she felt that it could offer something different to the small town of Arcata, and also provide people a space where they can further understand this taboo subject in a creative way.
“It wasn’t being talked about,” Belton said. “Nobody was talking about it in the way I wanted to…with heart.”
Belton was inspired by the death cafes that originated in the UK. The first cafe event was held in 2011 in the home of former council worker Jon Underwood. Underwood came across an article one day about Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who created the concept of “cafe mortels” or death cafes.
“Nobody was talking about [death] in the way I wanted to- with heart.”
Crettaz thought that death was being pushed to the side, it needed to be recognized rather than being hidden, and Underwood agreed. He was fascinated by the idea of bringing people together to receive a deeper meaning of death. When he opened up his home to a few strangers, he didn’t realize that it was going to be such a huge success. A small get together soon spread out around the world, with at least 4800 death cafes held in 51 countries since the first meeting.
Death cafes are often hosted at a home or other temporary settings. The main goal of these unique cafes is to raise awareness of death and to help show others a different outlook on death so that they can make the most out of their lives.
In order to host a death cafe, some agreements must be made; cafes should always be nonprofit, they cannot have any agenda hidden behind them and, most importantly, they must serve a nice cup of tea, cake or other treats for guests to enjoy.
Belton’s cafe takes place on the second week of every month. Many showed their interest on Thursday Feb. 7, as ten locals expressed their take on the strange matter, making it Beltons’ biggest turn out that she has had in a while.
Death can be seen as a compelling topic to talk about for some, but it can obviously prove to be a touchy subject for others. Belton knows that this topic will lead to vulnerability as people share their thoughts and experiences, which is why she makes sure that the environment is supportive and each individual is respected.
“It feels supportive, but it is not a support group, you can just be here,” Belton said. “If anything you can cry buckets of tears here.”
Even though death is the main focus for this event, Belton also tries to highlight the beauty of life. To be clear, a death cafe does not encourage acts toward death itself, instead it simply explains to others what death is to better understand the mystery of death.
“That is why we come here, because we don’t know,” Belton said.
Belton has witnessed many forms of both loss and the grieving of others; being a nurse and educator for over 20 years influenced her to continue working with the concepts of life and death. Belton finds joy in preparing her room for events such as these because she also finds joy in hearing what others have to say about this unpopular topic.
HSU has received lectures from her before, and Belton is more than happy with an idea to facilitate a cafe like this just for college students. Students are out on their own, and with unfortunate incidents regarding other students, Belton believes that having an open space to discuss confusing and/or deep subjects with students is a great way for them to learn and accept loss and life.
Having a group of students that share the same confusion about death could serve as a dependable resource during difficult times. Students like Shelby Geilfuss and Cita Hunter express their thoughts about having a death cafe for students; although they believe it would be a good idea to have, they still have mixed feelings because of the sensitive topic.
“Honestly, I have really bad anxiety when it comes to death,” Hunter said. “It’s important to know that people die everyday, you have to understand that things happen although it’s sad you have to accept that type of stuff.”
Geilfuss said that she thinks grief is a personal thing and it should be handled on the individuals own time and in their own way.
“I probably wouldn’t go,” Geilfuss said. “But I do think it’s a good resource for other people to have because many people deal with grief in different ways.”
Belton further explained that death is a part of life, and though at times it seems like an impossible thing to accept, it also helps us value life itself. Belton has acknowledged that “death” is unpredictable, and because of that, life is something to look forward to. She hopes that all who enter her space can realize that as well.
“I’m tasting the world, I’m tasting every bit of it before I go,” Belton said.