At the Death Cafe, we talked about The End | John Hamer

It was to die for.

A small group of total strangers sat around a table at the Mercer Island Community and Events Center last month talking about … death.

Seriously. Welcome to Death Cafe. Sorry you missed it. It was to die for.

This was the first such gathering ever held on Mercer Island, its organizers said. It was sponsored by MI Youth and Family Services. About a dozen people showed up. Some brought cookies or cake.

The first Death Cafe ( was held in London in 2011, according to their website. Since then, thousands of such gatherings have been held in over 30 countries. Death Cafes have been organized in Seattle, Olympia, Edmonds, Bellingham and other cities statewide. A list of upcoming events is on the website.

Why spend two hours on a nice afternoon talking about death with people you’ve never met? Good question.

Death is a hard topic to confront, even with family members and close friends. Some call it a “taboo topic.” But open discussion of death can be healthy and rewarding, as our group discovered.

We started by going around the table saying why we had come.

“I live my best day every day because I don’t know if I will wake up,” said one woman.

“Talking about it is the last gift you can give to your loved ones,” said another.

“I appreciate using the word ‘death’ rather than ‘passed away,’” said one man. “It’s more honest.”

As we talked, we learned that some had lost husbands, wives, other family members or friends. Some had spouses with dementia or Alzheimer’s, some had serious illnesses, others were just curious. I went because death has been on my mind lately, for several reasons:

• My wife and I are not regular churchgoers, but we went to church on Easter Sunday. The themes of death and resurrection were of course dominant. The opening hymn was “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” The sermon was on “Resurrections: Large and Small.” It was a moving ceremony, but I remain uncertain about God, Jesus and heaven. I’ve long been agnostic, but as I age, I am starting to question that.

• My sister died not long ago at 79 from pancreatic cancer. She was a free spirit who believed in several rather mystical gods and gurus. She wrote poetry that we discovered after her death, much of it profoundly moving and focused on the afterlife. She was remarkably calm and at peace before she died. We scattered her ashes on the Oregon Coast, which she loved, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.

• My 60th high school reunion is coming up soon, and a group of “old guys” will get together for dinner to reminisce. We are all in our late 70s and have had various health problems, some life-threatening. We are “still hanging in there,” but know death will come — as it already has for many of our classmates.

• I recently read a small book, “The Cafe at the End of the World,” about a man who is literally lost but stumbles into a surreal cafe where he is asked: Why am I here? What is my reason for existing? Do I fear death? Am I fulfilled? It got me thinking hard about these vital questions.

• At the Death Cafe gathering, I mentioned that my father, who died at 98, was not a religious man. But I gave him a book called “Proof of Heaven” that had a strong impact on him. In his final hours, he said: “I’m crossing over. I’m not sure where I’m crossing to, but I’m crossing over.” He was calm and accepting, even joking a bit. He knew the end was near — but he had no fear.

• At the Senior Resource Fair, which I had attended earlier at the Community Center, there was an information table for the People’s Memorial Association, which provides information on various options for burial, cremation, “green burial” or other alternatives. I had picked up their literature and chatted with the cheerful staff member, who was half my age.

• I’ve spent a lot of time lately with a neighbor who is 94 years old. His wife, Mary, died a few years ago and he talks about her frequently. He is sharp as a tack mentally, and walks his dog at least twice a day. We discuss religion, politics, media, movies, documentaries, family, friends and much more. He is a devout Christian and not afraid of death because he believes in God and heaven, where he will reunite with Mary. He hopes his dog will be there as well.

• My wife and I have a meeting soon with an attorney to update our last wills and testaments, powers of attorney, and living trusts. I spent a couple of hours reading these documents, which is a sobering process.

Attending the Death Cafe clearly got me thinking more about all this. We talked openly about legal issues, hospice care, end-of-life medical instructions, pain medications, helpful books, spirituality, religion, faith, heaven, hell, etc.

As the end, participants agreed they would like to attend another Death Cafe. We covered a lot of ground, because, as we all know, someday the ground will cover us.

John Hamer ( is a Mercer Island resident, former editorial writer/columnist for The Seattle Times and co-founder of the Washington News Council. He turned 78 on April 15, but hopes to live another decade or two.