Death Cafe: A New Ministry of Our Church?
By Rev. Dr. Mark LaRocca-Pitts
Mentioning “death” can kill a good conversation—as well as a sermon! Yet, never dealing with death can limit a life lived well. Though we believe “death has lost its sting,” we still react as if stung when death comes knocking. Why is that? Could it be that few of us have come to terms with our own mortality and talking about death only reinforces that anxiety?
Risk-taking is central to a successful ministry. Talking about death is risky, yet many people desire this conversation and have no place to have it, including the church. Death Cafés are an exception!
Five years ago, I held my first Death Café at Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery. Since then, I have hosted nearly 75 Death Cafés at various venues including churches, retirement communities, coffee houses, conferences, and university classrooms along with our monthly meetings at Oakland Cemetery.
Death Cafés are a social franchise originated in London as the brainchild of Jon Underwood in 2011, who based his ideas on Bernard Crettaz’s Café Mortals. In 2012, Lizzy Miles brought the first Death Café to the USA. Since then Death Cafés have been held in 56 countries around the world. A central tenant of is that they are to be held with no agendas, objectives, or themes and with no intention of leading participants toward any conclusion. This is where the risk comes in for those of us who are called to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
All participants at my Death Cafés know I am a United Methodist pastor, but I cannot and do not advocate for my views of life, death, and after-life as “better” than others or as “right” when compared to others. Neither can anyone else! Because of this, a wide diversity of people attend Death Cafés that includes race, gender-identity, sexual orientation, age, politics, economics, and occupations.
To me, the most interesting diversity is religious or spiritual. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, Humanists, Agnostics, Pagans, Wiccans, Spiritual-but-not-Religious, Nones, Buddhists, Hindus, and everything in between, including Methodists, attend Death Cafes. We all have death in common and we all want to talk about death (as well as life!) with full respect for all other views and opinions. I believe this is one of the few places in our culture where such a wide diversity of people congregates to engage such a serious topic with interesting and informed people.
Death Cafés can in no way be construed as “church.” It is not designed for making disciples of Jesus Christ. But it is about transforming the world. We live in a death-denying culture that fears growing old. Such denial and fear limit what we Christians understand as the “abundant life” that we live fully and authentically in Christ.
Death Café is about increasing “awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives." Also, we live in a world that pits one group of people against another and in which civil and polite conversation among a widely diverse group of people is uncommon. Death Café flies in the face of this cultural trend. If we as United Methodists are all about the transformation of the world and sharing table with one and all, then Death Café, when done right, can be a ministry of our church.
Rev. Dr. Mark LaRocca-Pitts is pastor of Bethelview UMC in Cumming. For additional information on Death Café Atlanta, visit https://www.facebook.com/DeathCafeAtlanta/.