TRINITY — The chocolate cake and mini cannolis were arranged, but the sky was rumbling on the hot August night. Attendance is mixed when weather rolls in, and a pandemic doesn’t help.
Then again, people have never needed to talk about death more. And so, the curious found their way to the welcome center of Heartwood Preserve, a natural cemetery amid 41 acres of serene woods.
Seven people came to the West Pasco Death Cafe, spread out, masks on, to talk about dying. It’s the one thing we are all guaranteed to do. With COVID-19 deaths climbing toward 10,000 in Florida, our mortality is laid bare with each trip to the store.
Yet humans avoid even saying the word. We “pass away.” We don’t plan. We don’t cope. We don’t talk.
The Death Cafe is simple as that. Jon Underwood founded it in London in 2011, inspired by the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. Six years later, he died from a brain hemorrhage at 44. Now, there are 11,000 Death Cafes around the world. They are always free. There is always cake.
It is not a grief counseling group. No one is allowed to sell anything, including politics or religion. Other than that, “the whole entire tone of the event is death,” said organizer Diana Sayegh, Heartwood’s manager. “There’s nothing that’s frowned upon.”
They introduced themselves. Lindsey Schutze decided to be buried in Heartwood after taking walks through the grounds. People stroll through Heartwood regularly, discovering it via neighboring Starkey Wilderness Preserve. But when the pandemic started, even more people came, looking for a place to escape.
Schutze is training to be a death doula, someone who helps people through the process of dying. But “I took the summer off,” she said. “I just needed a breather with the events going on. It was really hurting me to think about how many people were dying alone.”
They talked about how masks hide grief. They talked about hospice, about funeral customs around the world. Living wills. Terri Schiavo. Flowers. Facebook.
They talked about crying and not crying, movies and TV shows, organ donation, obituary writing parties, life insurance. They talked about kids, grandkids and the phenomenon of grieving deeply for someone you barely know.
James Paris volunteers at Heartwood Preserve, helping with burials. It’s all natural here, no embalming, no heavy caskets. Some people are buried in pine boxes, others in white sheets.
“When we lower people into the earth, I feel something,” he said.
“Like what?” Sayegh said.
“I don’t know. I feel alive.”
Lisa Conca was quiet for most of the meeting. The group was just about to disband when Schutze spoke up.
“I wonder if you’d be comfortable sharing what you told me during the break.”
Conca steadied herself. She talked about growing up and experiencing a lot of death, how it made her scared and angry. How with each instance, she learned a little more. She talked about her mother-in-law’s death, how she was able to help her family get through it, and how it was life-changing. How her mother-in-law asked to hear bagpipes before she died, and when Amazing Grace played, extended her arms into the sky.
Death and grief are complicated, but confronting death robs its power over the rest of our lives.
The group gathered their things and walked into the parking lot. The sky was black, and the air was quiet among the longleaf pines, where nature was taking its course.