Monday, 1 July 2013

Write up of the first Lyons Death Cafe and Art Salon by Phyllis J. O’Rourke

Ghosted by: Phyllis J. O’Rourke, M.A.

Paraphrasing a quote from a famous baseball movie, “If you hold a Death Café, they will come.”

Almost 20 folks between the ages of 80 to a baby still nursing attended the first Lyons Death Café (and Art Salon) on June 9, 2013, at the Lyons Yoga and Wellness Center, Lyons, Colorado.

For several weeks before the event, I began to research the topic of death. As I told friends and family about the ideas behind Death Café, I received support in the form of suggested websites to visit and books to read mixed in with a few skeptical eye-brow raisings and looks of horror and dread, as in “What are you thinking?” I studied the material on Jon Underwood’s website, and prepared a summary description which I posted at the death café website and distributed as a two-sided brochure. In addition, a press release was sent to The Lyons Recorder and an article about Death Café appeared in the newspaper about a month before the event.

To ensure that folks would actually come, I also mailed a simple post card to about 20 personal friends and requested that they help me plan ahead by responding with an R.S.V.P. I also made copies of the brochure which I placed in our town’s two local coffee shops. This brochure included a pre-registration form and a schedule of events. In addition, I placed posters throughout Lyons near walk lights at each of the town’s three stop lights.

A month before my Death Café was scheduled to take place, I met with someone with more experience than I have, who surprisingly volunteered to help co-host the Death Café so I was beginning to feel like I had most of the bases covered. Ah, Icarus. My confidence was soon to be tested as the day of the event revealed a few glitches. More about that later.

As I walked around town, a week before the actual Death Café, I realized that the word of mouth was happening. Many of my fellow townsfolk would ask me questions and express an interest in the event, but my actual R.S.V.P. list was minimal. Very small. Like seven people. Then on the morning of June 9th, I received two last-minute e-mail cancellations. I was beginning to feel a fair amount of what is commonly known as stage fright or was it buyer’s remorse. Fortunately, a close friend called the night before the event and was able to calm my nerves (sort of). By now it was clear I would have more than enough food and drink. Plenty. Perhaps even way more than necessary.

On the day of the Death Café, I spent 45 minutes setting up and decorating the space before folks started arriving on the dot of 12:30 p.m. While folks were chatting with each other, I offered tea and refreshments. I put out 1/3 third of the amount of food I had prepared--bowls of fruit, nuts, and candy for snacking in addition to the promised tea and cake. For those who had more of an appetite, there were also two fresh loaves of bread with almond and sunflower butter and a jar of orange marmalade.

One of my close friends and her husband presented me with a decorated T-shirt which replicated her mail art R.S.V.P. letter. I will treasure this gift forever, every time I wear the shirt. While folks were finishing their plates of food, we moved the chairs into a circle and I invited everyone to take a seat. Each person was given a package of handouts including a description of Death Café and a list of resources, poems, and quotes (see Handout Sheets at the end of this report). Note to self: Next time, make sure that each packet is collated, stapled together and three-hole punched for ease of distribution and referral. I began with a short introduction about how I came to be interested in Death Café and invited everyone to share why they had decided to come. Many in the room had experienced the death of friends and/or close relatives, and some were contemplating the fact that they were “closer to the end than to the beginning” of their own lives. One or two folks even shared their doubts about the dubious or at least tenuous benefits of life in general given that we all die eventually, wondering about the why’s and where fore’s of the pains and sorrows that confront us all if we but live long enough on Planet Earth.

I introduced a brainstorming exercise of calling out and writing down words that come to mind when death is used as the seed idea. We came up with over 50 words in about 15 minutes (also attached at the end of this report). As words were shared, stories were told, and there was a lot of laughter and a few tears. Each person was given a large sheet of paper divided into 8 rectangles. The instructions were to use any of the pens, crayons, pencils or makers provided to “doodle” a picture that symbolized or represented the words. At this point, the group was divided in half and one group moved into the front room. This allowed each person more time to share their thoughts and gave our hands something to do while others were speaking.

The two groups were then invited to come back together and given the opportunity to share any of the word/pictures with the larger group. I indicated that the art work would be shared during the meeting, but now I know that I need to make sure sharing is voluntary because now I know that some folks are quite shy when it comes to sharing art. One of the women had chosen to illustrate the word “Gravity.” As she described her picture, she said, “At first, these large, gray block-like shapes took form on the bottom of the page. Then, sort of spontaneously, these green shoots started exploding out of the tops of the gray blocks.” She seemed both surprised and pleased that the drawing had shown her something unexpected. It had been my hope that all of these drawings could have been photographed to be shared at Death Café, but it was not to be.

Throughout the afternoon, when new folks showed up, we enlarged the circle and gave the newcomers copies of the hand outs and explained how we had come up with the word list and showed them the word pictures we had created. Each time someone new came into the circle, we introduced ourselves and gave the new person an opportunity to speak.

By three o’clock, we took a break for tea and the promised cake. Folks had the opportunity to talk with each other individually and more informally. After the cake break, a core group of about nine folks gathered in the circle one more time for the final presentation of the day. Each person was given a copy of the “Five Wishes” document produced by the non-profit organization, Aging with Dignity (for more information, please go to: The “Five-Wishes” document gave folks the opportunity to discuss the five important wishes for: 1) “The person I want to make care decisions for me when I can’t”; 2) “The kind of medical treatment I want or don’t want”; 3) “How comfortable do I want to be”; 4) “How I want people to treat me”; and 5) “What I want my loved ones to know.”

At the end of the afternoon, the group was given time to share their thoughts about the question: “Since everybody dies eventually, how then shall we live?” Folks shared their ideas and plans that sort of correlated to the concept of a “bucket list.”


Although the actual Death Café itself ran relatively smoothly considering it was my first event in terms of the introductions and resulting conversations throughout the afternoon, a few things could have been improved: 1) I did not have folks sign the guest book I had made especially for the event so I did not get everyone’s e-mail address for my feedback and follow-up evaluation form; 2) I did not take pictures of the room set up the day of the event or of the word-doodles made during the afternoon; 3) I did not set up a bowl or plate for donations; 4) I did not remind folks to be sure to send me evaluations by e-mail; 5) I discovered that having folks dropping in who had not sent an R.S.V.P. was a bit disrupting to the established flow of group process; 6) I failed to call or e-mail a few days before Death Café the person who I thought was going to co-host the Death Café; and 7) I didn’t ask anyone else to help me out. It turns out, I could have used at least two other folks to handle the size of the group that eventually showed up. In the weeks since our Death Café, I have been very gratified that folks are still contacting me about when the next Death Café will be held. More will be revealed.


First, I want to thank my husband who provided moral support as he watched me go through the early preparation phases of Death Café and post collapse at the end. I also want to thank everyone who participated in Death Café—long-time friends--and strangers I’ve never met. I want to thank Grant F. who shared his many years of experience and wisdom about his life and experience with the process of death and dying and who started me off on my explorations with a recommendation of the wonderful book by Wane Muller, “How Then, Shall We Live.” Thanks to Loretta M., who met with me for tea and gave me moral support, both before and after Death Café. I want to thank my sister Donna, who participated in phone call and e-mail conversations in the midst of her very busy life. Thanks to my friend and mentor San S., who sent me mail art and talked with me at length about Art, Life, and Death. I want to thank my friends of many years, Jane K., Emmy L., Kaye B.S., Sally K., and Abigail B, who though they could not be with me in person were there with me in spirit. Thanks to Patti P. who knew to call the night before to ease what she know would be my performance anxiety. Thanks again to all my art buddies from the Art-4-Art Artist Trading Card Group in Lyons and the Boulder Arts Group who supported me by listening and asking valuable questions as I prepared to host the event, and thanks to those of you too numerous to mention who shared an afternoon in early summer to talk about the taboo topic of death when you could have been doing almost anything else. Thanks to those of you who have sent me feedback which I was able to incorporate in this summary report. And of course, I want to thank Jon Underwood who is keeping this movement going by providing this website so that the opportunity to attend a Death Cafés is taking place all over the world. Almost last, but not least, a very special thank you goes to Rebecca and Alana at the Lyons Yoga and Wellness Center for allowing me to hang my artworks and to use their lovely yoga studio space for the first Lyons Death Café and Art Salon. And finally, I want to thank my parents, whose lives guided my own with wisdom and understanding and whose deaths have left me both richer and poorer as I am beginning to learn the some of the bitter-sweet lessons of strength, compassion, love, and forgiveness.


E.M.: “I thought this was a very valuable spur to reawakening my past explorations into this topic [death] through classes I took at Naropa and in doing the Hospice training. I haven’t thought very deeply about [death] since then (except for occasional 4 a.m. pants of existential dread), but [death] is a timely subject for this period of my life. My [experience at Death Café] helped to bring [death] front and center, back into my consciousness. [After attending Death Café], I am tackling my husband’s and my will … and also want to get the [Five Wishes} filled out for both of us. [Your Death Café] seemed to be structured to last all afternoon, so it was discombobulating to have people dropping in at various inconvenient times, through there is the question of how many would show up if it were an all-afternoon commitment. That said, you were not aware of how many to expect, so it was hard to plan to accommodate everyone. RSVP’s are not reliable, this I know. So I don’t know if there’s a remedy for this. You mentioned having an assistant, and I think that would help in getting people settled without disrupting the main group. Everything else was really great. You did a fantastic job of facilitating it and planning out the activities. I appreciated getting the [Five Wishes document], that was really helpful! Your sheet of relevant quotes handout out at the beginning got me thinking, and I enjoyed reading them afterwards at home. And I really liked the art component. This Café was mainly focused on dealing with and facing our own ending. When I did the Hospice training there was a whole other segment on grief counseling and dealing with letting go of someone who’s died. In a way, that’s a whole other can of worms, but that’s my only suggestion for additional discussion topics.”

N.P.: “First of all, thank you very much for doing this. It was so interesting to me how people felt the common need to talk about death. It provided a good mirror for me too, to see where my focus is on the topic and where other’s focus or how they relate to [death] through the perspectives they have gained by losing someone and some attending during the process. The group was very interesting and caring. The fact that we all came to the [Death Café] specifically to talk about death created an atmosphere that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Coincidentally, my Tai Chi teacher’s mother passed last week and when she told the entire class, everyone was supportive, but I happened to be the only one who stayed after the class to talk about it with her. ???? Maybe partially because we had been able to talk so openly about it just a few days before. I was grateful to have the opportunity to hear about her experiences of her mother’s passing instead of running off and thinking it was too personal an experience and I should not ‘intrude’ on her time of grief. I liked being able to draw while listening and talking, being split up into smaller groups was good, cake was excellent!! ;-). The only problem was the interruption of new people coming in—but that was just one of those things. I would say it was a big success.

P.G.: “How I felt before, apprehensive; during, engaged; after, contemplative. It’s good to know [death] can be talked about and there are so many words to describe ‘it,’ and our feelings about it are myriad. How to improve: 1) A bigger space with more chairs and more opportunity to break into smaller groups comfortably; 2) By assigning numbers to everyone so the grouping is more arbitrary; I thought there was not enough time to go deep, or to hear everyone’s thoughts. I’d like to attend another one. In fact, I’d like death to be the topic of discussion at least once a month in my life.”

C.V.G. “I thought it was fascinating how many different reasons people had for coming. It was interesting to meet some new people and to find out more about people I knew. I wasn’t really sure why I agreed to go. I had no real agenda. I’m always uncomfortable when I am asked to make art and then show it to other people so the drawing part was a bit uncomfortable. I’m the same way with writing—if I will be required to share what I’ve written in a workshop, I tend to go brain dead). I don’t know that I was as interested in the practicalities of preparing for death, as the philosophic, emotional preparations, but the Café made me feel that I need to think about the practicalities more. I feel more intensely that I don’t want to spend my remaining time doing things I don’t want to do, so I’ll have to work on saying ‘no’ in friendly ways. As I’ve grown older, I have grown less and less afraid of death. The Café just increased those feelings. I think, too, I’m more motivated to find out about taking control of how I want to be treated in the process. It’s worth spending some time on medical power of attorney, eliminating medical heroics, etc. I feel more motivated to make a will. I think it needs to be made clearer beforehand that it’s not a drop-in affair—but [an afternoon’s] commitment. And given the number of people who showed up, a bigger space would have been helpful. Liked most: Hearing such a broad array of feelings, ideas, responses to the thought of death. Liked least: showing my artwork. Recommend to others: I’d say that they should go. It’s a great experience.”

J.S.: “I came to Death Café with a sense of curiosity and no preconceptions. I have thought about death a lot over the past many decades and Death Café did not change my ideas and feelings. After listening to others I found it interesting that the comments of others fit with my own conclusions. Improvements: No essay questions! Most awkwardness from the advertising of the meeting. Liked most: the interchange of everyone’s experiences and thoughts about death; most have a wait and see attitude like me. Liked least: [the sound of] the Harley’s going by. Recommend to others: Yes! But don’t enter with a rigid set of ideas.”

S.S.: “I thought it might be a bit sad and dreary. The sunlit room, art on the walls, chairs in a circle, and food and drink gave the area a positive feeling. Since this was my first Death Café meeting, I didn’t know quite what to expect which piqued my curiosity. Also I felt a sense of exploration of uncharted territory. The experience allowed easier access to contemplate death (and life) and the infinite possibilities of existence. How to improve: More information about different ways of looking at death (more poetry, more artwork, pictures, music, etc.); more of a boundary between different activities (maybe); discussion was great; space was handled creatively and beautifully; (who knew about walk in’s?); refreshments—Yum. Liked most: That it exists at all and listening to the different ways people see death and express their views. Liked least: Interruptions. Recommend to others: Go!”

T. T.-T. (e-mail received from someone who wants to attend the next Death Café): “Wish I had known about the June 9th Session. I have been interested in the lack of acceptance of death in our culture for some time. Done some research and have helped friends with the whole process of dying. My parents went through home hospice in California over 20 years ago and it was a very positive experience for the whole family. So when I heard about the Death Café idea, I feel it is the right time to start having the conversation on a public basis. Many of my younger friends ask me how to talk to their older parents about what they want at the end [in terms] of life care. They are afraid to ask. If this topic was not so difficult to talk about, families would be better informed. All of my wishes are written and witnessed so my son knows what to do. So that is where I am coming from, but I do want to learn from others and would not push my ideas on others, just want open and honest discussion. Really have no opinion on what happens after we die.”


Mystery; Forgiveness; Relinquishment; Letting Go; Fulfillment; Journey; Trip; Change; Source; Satisfaction; Friendship; Support; Patience; Flow; Acceptance; Anxiety; Surrender; Gravity; Nonjudgement; Gratitude; Addiction; Gift; Liberation; Transition; All-ness; Curiosity; Holding On; Unknown; Revenge; Laughter; Continuation; Awareness; Peace; Wholeness; Love; Finality; Never Ending Union; Opportunity; Retirement; Denial; Compassion; Inevitable; Separation; Silence; Ultimate; Return to Source; Release; Suspension; Revolution; Beginning; Cessation; End; Metamorphosis; Precious; Temporary; Impermanent; Transitory; Termination; Extinction; Loss; Absence; Mortality; Absoluteness; Grief; Breaking Down; Holding Up; Falling Apart; Going to Pieces; Doing Well; Bearing Up; Weathering the Storm; Being Strong; Thankful; Indifference; Despair; Hope; Faith; Gladness; Loss; Gain; Pain; Sorrow; Misery; Ease; Repose; Outrage; Heartbreak; Transgressive


“Knowing that everybody will die eventually, how then shall we live?”

“Am I dead or alive (the solution is the problem).” --Super Sky Woman


Out of every 100 people who are born, the number of people who actually die equals 100 out of 100 (in other word death expectancy rate = 100%).


“To undertake is to bind oneself to the performance of a task, to pledge or promise to get it done” p. xix, “The Undertaking,” by Thomas Lynch.



On the day when the weight deadens on your shoulders and you stumble,

May the clay dance to balance you.

And when your eyes freeze behind the grey window

And the ghost of loss gets into you,

May a flock of colours, indigo, red, green and azure blue

Come to awaken you in a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays in the currach of thought

And a stain of ocean blackens beneath you,

May there come across the waters a path of yellow moonlight to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours.

May the clarity of light be yours.

May the fluency of the ocean be yours.

May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow wind work these words of love around you, an invisible cloak to mind your life.

--John Donahue (1954-2008) (from “Echoes of Memory”)

“On Death, A Sermon”

All things summon us to death;

Nature almost envious of the good she has given us,

Tells us often and gives us notice

That she cannot for long allow us that scrap of matter she has lent…

She has need of it for other forms, she claims it back for other works.

--Jacques-Bénigne Boussuet (1627-1704) (from “What Remains” by Sally Mann)


The Six Most Drastic Mistakes

--Marcus Tullius Cicero

1. The delusion that individual advancement is made by crushing others.

2. The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected.

3. Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot do it ourselves.

4. Refusing to set aside trivial preferences.

5. Neglecting development and refinement of the mind, and not acquiring the habit or reading and study.

6. Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.

Sign on Door at St. Benedict’s Monastery Retreat Center

--Noted by Patti P., 5/25/2006

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender oneself to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. It destroys one’s own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes the work fruitful.” --Thomas Merton

“Know your limits,” says Red Lake.

“Faith in the journey,“ says The Sand Rabbit

“No regrets,” says Damaris.



DEATH: Challenging Our Preconceived Notions

Andrews, Andy, “The Heart Mender: A Story of Second Chances”

Baines, Barry K., M.D., “Ethical Issues Relating to Life and Death.”

Becker, Ernest, “The Denial of Death”

Becker, Ernest, “Escape from Evil”

Carlson, Lisa, “I Died Laughing: Funeral Education with a Light Touch”

De Beauvoir, Simone, “A Very Easy Death”

Johnson, Marilyn, “The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries”

Ladd, John (Editor), “Ethical Issues Relating to Life and Death”

Landorf, Joyce, “Mourning Song”

Levine, Stephen, “A Year to Live”

Levine, Stephen, “Who Dies”

Lynch, Thomas, “The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade.”

Matson, Tim, “Round-Trip to Deadsville: A Year in the Funeral Underground”

Muller, Wayne, “How then Shall We Live?: Four Simple Questions That Reveal the Beauty and Meaning of Our Lives”

Neuhaus, Richard John, “As I Lay Dying: Mediations Upon Returning”

Nuland, Sherwin B., M.D., “How We Die: Feflections on Life’s Final Chapter.”

O’Rourke, Phyllis J., and Sally White King, “Nobody’s Afraid of the Dark during the Day: Sojourners in Grief; Dying & Living & Other Constants,” Valley Light Publications, 2004.

Zackheim, Victoria (Editor), “Exit Laughing: How Humor Takes the Sting Out of Death”


Arnheim, Rudolf, “Visual Thinking”

Barry, Lynda, “What It Is”

Barry, Lynda, “Picture This”

Bayles, David, and Ted Orland, “Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking”

Best-Maugard, Adolfo, “A Method for Creative Design”

Brookes, Mona, “Drawing with Children: A Creative Teaching and Learning Method that Works for Adults, Too”

Brown, Stuart, with Christopher Vaughan, “Play: How it Shapes the Bain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul”

Edwards, Betty, “Drawing on the Artist Within”

Field, Joanna, “On Not Being Able to Paint”

Jung, Carl G. “Memories, Dreams and Reflections”

Miller, Alice, “Pictures of a Childhood”

Nachmanovitch, Stephen, “Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art”

Parnes, Sidney J., “The Magic of Your Mind”

Pressfield, Steven, “The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle”

Shimoda, L.J.C, “Glyphix for Visual Journaling”

Stroud, Betsy Dillard, “The Artist’s Muse: Unlock the Door to Your Creativity”

Topal, Cathy Weisman, “Children and Painting”

Watts, Michael, “Doodle Interpretation: A Beginner’s Guide”

If you want additional information about the next Death Café, contact:


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Thank you so much DEATH is positive

  3. We had a DEATH CAFE 7/10/2013 at Ethical Culture Society in New York yesterday -it was 35 interested people who really shared deeply some of their comcerns and hopes. We will be having them every two weeks 7/24 8/7 9/21


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