Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Report from the First PDX Death Café!

If asked to go indoors on a gloriously sunny springtime day to talk about Death, would you expect to describe the experience as fun, exciting, inspirational or enlivening? Those in fact are some of the most common words participants used to describe the first PDX Death Café, held April 28 at the Bijou Café in downtown Portland, Oregon.

The top descriptors volunteered by our 60 participants were: interesting, informative, enlightening, and educational – remarkable given that this event presented absolutely no "content". No featured speakers, no presentations, no informational handouts. The format consisted exclusively of sitting with three or four strangers and sharing why they chose to come to a Death Café.  About half of our tables included a host, but many were entirely self-facilitated (following a few general guidelines offered in our opening). Some chose to draw from additional conversation-starters on their tables, and others generated their own flow from topic to topic.

When commenting on the most enjoyable aspect of the event, the majority mentioned some variation on “engaging with the topic openly and easily; connecting to people with different perspectives”:

  • “Meeting new people and hearing their stories. Feeling commonality and deep compassion.”
  • “Talking about death in such a matter-of-fact way was a great way to connect on a touchy topic.”
  • “The delight of free exchange with strangers so willing to speak openly.”
  • “Bold exposing of life experiences that are often hidden.”
  • “Sharing experiences of loss/ mortality with others.”
  • “The ease of making community amongst strangers.”
Several specifically appreciated the cross-generational aspect of the conversation and “being surprised by people's perspectives/ experiences.”

Other words used by participants included: heart-warming, deep, transgressive, crucial, fascinating, intimate, practical, safe, sweet, useful, and connecting.

100% who completed evaluation forms said they would recommend the Death Café to friends or family. 95% said they would consider attending a future Death Café, 67% strongly agreeing. As another extraordinary measure of how engaged participants were, 94% filled out evaluation forms.

91% agreed that, “The event had a positive impact on me”; 50% agreed strongly, while 7% were neutral on this measure and one person disagreed.

The Death Café is not intended to change people’s views or even to make them more comfortable with the idea of death. Consistent with evaluations done by US Café pioneer Lizzy Miles, we found that many participants did not cite big changes as the strongest measure of their experience. While 52% did agree, “I feel more comfortable talking about death and dying now” (27% strongly agreeing), 35% were neutral on this statement, and 12% disagreed – several commenting that they came in comfortable with the topic. Only 28% reported a change in their perspective on death and dying.

What 87% of participants did report was: “It was helpful for me to meet people with different viewpoints”; 55% strongly agreed with this statement.

100% reported feeling “comfortable sharing my thoughts and feelings about death.” 96% found the structure “conducive to conversation, with 66% strongly agreeing and one person disagreeing. 96% affirmed that they did not feel pressured to talk, with the other 4% neutral on this question.

Facilitation and facilitators scored only high marks, with 98% agreeing they created a safe environment for discussion, were caring, and treated people with respect (a few people were neutral on these questions). People described the facilitators as superb, great, well-organized, easy and fun, comfortable; “excellent caretakers of the space”.

We received five comments from people at tables without facilitators who reported that the conversation sometimes got dominated or sidetracked (one said it was “slightly highjacked by a funeral professional”). Another three said they didn’t miss having a facilitator at their table, saying the opening question (Why did you come?) “facilitated itself” and that the “conversation flowed very well.”

Six people mentioned wanting more time. Two wished for the chance to rotate tables part-way through. While a strong majority favor sticking with an open conversational format, several offered suggestions for focal topics.

The space received generally favorable response, with 85% rating the environment appropriate for the event (54% strongly so) with others finding the noise level too high or the parking meters a hassle.

Who Came?
An astonishing 100 people expressed interest in attending, with 72 confirming before we closed registration – this with zero advertising or local news media coverage. Our no-show rate was only 16%.

Of the 86% who chose to indicate their gender, 21% were male and 79% female. By age:
  • The largest cluster were 65-74 (30%). 
  • One person was between 18-24 and one was 75-84. 
  • The rest were evenly distributed: 22% were 25-34 and 22% were 55-64.
  • 11% were 35-44 and another 11% were 45-54.
In a show of hands during our introduction, roughly two-thirds said they worked in a professional or volunteer capacity with grief, death, or dying. Several reported afterwards how welcome they found the opportunity to “let their hair down” and share their own personal experiences and beliefs rather than their employers’ or clients’.

How did you hear about Death Café? 
  • 53% from friends, a cohost or a teacher
  • 35% on Facebook
  • 12% via national coverage on NPR, USA Today, MSNBC, or Huffington Post
When asked, “How would you describe your faith/ religion/ belief system?” one person wrote simply “I wouldn’t.” Of the 80% who chose to answer this question: 
  • 28% said “spiritual”
  • Eastern practices were referenced by 13%, from “Unitarian/ Buddhist” to “Buddhist/ Taoist” to “Zen” to “open with a spiritual/ Buddhist bent” and “non-practicing Buddhist"
  • 8% used words like “exploring,” “open-minded,” “undecided,” “unknown”
  • Several said “secular,” “agnostic” or “atheist”
  • 8% named pagan or native spirituality practices
  • Two listed religious science/ new thought
  • Two used the words “mixture” and “eclectic”; the rest illustrated this with their own particular blend: “raised a Jew but became a witch at 30 while maintaining a cultural identity as a Jew,” “interfaith Catholic,” “naturalist/hopeful,” “Catholic who loves stained glass and prayers to saints,” “Urantia Book,” “Christian/questioning,” and “universal”.
What’s Next?
Along with many of my founding cohosts, I am excited about organizing more PDX Death Cafés! We’re looking at late June, late September, and early December. I’m also happy to coordinate with those of you who are interested in organizing your own Death Café – in your own neighborhood, for your own network, at a greater frequency, etc. If you’d like to help shape upcoming PDX Death Cafés (date, venue, format, etc.) or connect around organizing your own, watch for a survey link I’ll send in the coming week.

As For Me
Organizing the PDX Death Café was one of the absolute highlights of my 25+ years as a community organizer and professional facilitator. Now that I’ve crossed into the latter half of my own life and become a Life-Cycle Celebrant providing ceremonial support around the end of life, I’m hungry for connections with others willing to look this topic squarely in the face. That hunger, clearly, is shared. We all need community, especially around loss and mortality. Seeing so many people willing open their hearts and minds to each other and the great mysteries of life and death, was a profoundly moving experience. I am grateful to all who gave themselves to it.

Special thanks to the Bijou Cafe, global movement leader Jon Underwood ( and mentors Lizzy Miles of Columbus Death Café and Kristine Bentz of Tucson Death Café.

Holly Pruett
Life-Cycle Celebrant


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