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rob treadway's picture

'Death cafes' normalize a difficult, not morbid, topic


"Death cafes," a trend that started in England, are spreading across the USA.

Reposted from USA Today
April 10, 2013

No one wants to talk about death at the dinner table, at a soccer game or at a party, says Lizzy Miles, a social worker in Columbus, Ohio.

But sometimes people need to talk about the "taboo" topic and when that happens, they might not be able to find someone who will listen, she says. "Whenever people hear I'm a hospice worker, they talk to me about death. It doesn't matter if I'm on an airplane, gambling in Las Vegas, or in a grocery store line. I really see firsthand the need to let people talk. It's my gift to others."

Her gift sparked the birth of "death cafes" in the USA, a trend that started in England, is spreading across the USA and is about to take off, she says.

The casual get-togethers are held at coffee shops, restaurants and, on March 30 in Atlanta, at the historic Oakland Cemetery. Hosts are social workers and chaplains — no professional association, philosophy or religion sponsors them, and no one tries to sell anything like coffins or funeral plots.

The concept is really very simple and civilized.

"They're a place to talk about the issues surrounding death while drinking tea and eating delicious cake,'' says Miles, 42.

The Internet is spreading the word. The website was created by Jon Underwood, who held the first cafe in September 2011, in England. He developed the idea from the writings of Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist who says talking about death leads to authenticity. Since 2011, Underwood says, he's had hundreds of inquiries from the USA, Australia and Canada.

"Death Cafe exists because of a belief that more authenticity is needed in the world,'' Underwood says. "Death denial is an omnipresent feature of Western consumer capitalism."

About 40 people met at the conference room at Oakland Cemetery, broke up into clusters of five to eight people, and talked for several hours. At a typical death cafe, facilitators move about the room and monitor conversations, to identify anyone who might need counseling, pull them aside and tell them where to find help. The cafes are not support groups, says chaplain Mark LaRocca-Pitts, a host of the Oakland Cemetery cafe.

Meetings often start with the question "What brought you here?" he says.

The conversation helped Julie Arms. "My partner doesn't want to talk about dying, especially about my dying, so it gave me a chance to explore ideas with other people," she says. "I found comfort in that."

Arms, a breast cancer survivor, says other participants understood her when she said, "I don't think death is nearly as scary after going through cancer."

"Two other people said the very same thing," she says. "We have come close to death."

Putting the cafe in a cemetery setting seemed natural, says LaRocca-Pitts, and one of the participants is a volunteer there and was able to book the room. "We knew we'd have a large turnout and a coffee shop wouldn't have held us."

Each cafe is different, he says, but talk can center on advance directive planning, physician-assisted dying, funeral arrangements and what happens after death.

Intensive care units are the most difficult places to have those conversations, he says. "As a hospice chaplain, I know people often don't talk about these things until it's a crisis, and there's little comfort in that."

But the gatherings don't draw only people who are worried about dying or those who are grieving. As Underwood noted, they attract people seeking authenticity.

"They're not being morbid,'' he says. "These are people who want to live more fully. They think that by fearing cessation they can't be spiritually alive. The more we talk about dying and what it means about ego and self, the more we add to life."

Underwood credits Miles with starting the cafe movement in the USA. She says very soon death cafes will take on a life of their own.

"At the end of April, I'm presenting the cafe concept at the annual conference of the Association for Death Education and Counseling,'' she says. "Several other death cafe hosts from the USA will also be there.

"I know many of the people attending will find out about it, hear us talking about it and want to start one."


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Bob Fells's picture

Gunning for Gun Control



Gunning for Gun Control

[Note: This essay is one in a continuing series by ICCFA executive director Bob Fells focusing on various issues in our federal government. Although the subjects are political in nature, the approach is bipartisan in outlook, at least so far as that is humanly possible. The goal of each essay is not to persuade the reader to adopt a particular political viewpoint or party, but to illustrate why a knowledge of the system is important to protect our businesses, our homes, and our families.]

For the record, I have never owned any firearms nor did my parents. In fact, the only person in my extended family that I know has guns is a brother-in-law who owns a couple of hunting rifles. My grown son once took me to a shooting range and we rented a 9mm pistol and some ammo. I rather quickly became bored with trying to hit the little paper bulls-eye and invited my son to finish my round or whatever it’s called. I have no philosophical or religious opposition to owning firearms and I can appreciate why the American sense of self-reliance includes provisions for self-defense with implements that go bang. That said, the debate in Congress over gun control, what weapons should be banned, what background checks should be universal, and who decides all this, has deteriorated into a form of demagoguery that makes a mockery of the very issue it seeks to regulate.

This has been a horrific week between the Boston Marathon bombings and the explosion in a Texas fertilizer plant. Many Americans, including me, are experiencing PTSS-like flashbacks of 911 and it can be unnerving. Some have said that we have become too complacent as the events of 911 have receded into the mists of Time. But timing can be everything so it was with some concern that the advocates of federal gun control legislation found that this week is a bad time to vote on Americans giving up their firearms. America has been a gun-toting nation since the Minutemen of 1776 and probably before that. The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution safeguards the right of all citizens to bear arms, but it doesn’t say what kind.

The fact is that tens of millions of Americans keep firearms and always have. It is significant to note that very few of them have ever abused their Constitutional right to bear arms but we are being told relentlessly by the political classes that gun ownership is the common denominator behind the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora Colorado; Virginia Tech, and many other places where these types of massacres have occurred. That’s like claiming that a book of matches caused the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (Mrs. O’Leary’s cow has since been officially and legally exonerated) so let’s lock up all the matches.

The true and rather narrow common denominator behind all these mass shootings has been mental illness. All of the gunmen were mentally deranged and yet this obvious fact has been stunningly ignored in all the debate and tears shed on the subject. I mean that NOBODY is talking about mental health, better detection and intervention before the next whacko decides to find a soft target, i.e., a location where people are unlikely to have firearms to shoot back. You may wonder why, so at the risk of sounding cynical, I have to tell you that “gun control” is a lot easier for politicians to champion than advocating for better mental health services. And the insurance companies dislike the subject of mental health – just check your health policy to see how little coverage they provide for mental health claims. If you get a physical disease you probably have decent coverage, but have a mental illness and you’re pretty much on your own, brother.

Also, promoting more effective treatment of the actual cause of gun violence doesn’t lend itself to catchy slogans. It is much easier to tout, “If guns are outlawed, then only outlaws will have guns.” You might point out that if only outlaws have guns, then law-abiding people will be defenseless and ready victims, but you will be viewed with suspicion. The unspoken elephant in the room that politicians don’t want to mention is this: law-abiding citizens don’t need guns because the government is here to protect them. That loud rushing noise you just heard is the public running out to buy guns because they finally learned the real reason for pushing gun control: more power to the state. The first thing that every totalitarian government has ever done once in power is to disarm the population “for their own safety.”

We also don’t hear anything said about providing better gun owner education so weapons will be properly secured and tragic accidents will be avoided. Why? Because this approach does nothing to empower government. Besides, what kind of slogan is, “If all Americans had guns, then outlaws would think twice before trying to victimize them?” Nah.

Even as a non-gun owning American, I benefit from a robust application of the Second Amendment. You see, the bad guys don’t know whether I am armed or not, but gun control will go a long way to shift the odds in the bad guys’ favor. And it’s no coincidence that the nutjobs know to get at people where the government already prohibits them from carrying firearms like schools and movie theaters. “Crazy like a fox” is an old expression that’s quite apt here. So whatever your position on gun control, from total confiscation to unfettered Second Amendment rights, the next time you hear the politicians holding forth on this subject, ask yourself why they’re not talking about mental health issues and improving firearms education. They really do have their reasons and the omissions aren’t coincidental.


Children's Book about Grief


  I am so excited to announce that I have finished writing my new children's book, Sadie & Sammy: A Tail of Love, Loss, and Friendship.  This book is based on my experiences at my cemetery with my certified bereavement therapy dog, Sadie.  We will be at the convention today and tomorrow with copies of the book!  Stop by and say hello to Sadie!  Sadie is attending the convention with me to accept the KIP Award in Best Practice for our work with her! See you all there!

KIP Award!


Hi everyone! My name is Sadie! I work at Trinity Memorial Gardens and Friendship Pet Memorial Park in Maryland.  I am so excited to be traveling to Tampa tomorrow to receive the KIP Award in Best Practices! This will be my first plane trip and I'm excited to be sitting in the first class cabin! Please look for me at the convention and stop to say Hi! I will also be bringing copies of my new children's book, "Sadie & Sammy: A Tail of Love, Loss, and Friendship." I really love working with families and especially children. My book is focused on helping children deal with grief and is based on my experiences and the friendships I have formed with families and children in my work at Trinity Memorial Gardens. This book will help children understand grief and bring a smile to the faces of children and adults alike!
Bob Fells's picture

Immigration Reform and Us - and U.S.



Immigration Reform and Us – and U.S.

[Note: This essay is one in a continuing series by ICCFA executive director Bob Fells focusing on various issues in our federal government. Although the subjects are political in nature, the approach is bipartisan in outlook, at least so far as that is humanly possible. The goal of each essay is not to persuade the reader to adopt a particular political viewpoint or party, but to illustrate why an understanding of the system is important to protect our businesses, our homes, and our families.]

Bright and early this Sunday morning I received an email from one of the most powerful senators in Congress today.  It was a generic email but through the wonders of technology it was addressed to me personally as though Senator X had nothing better to do on this day than to write to me. He’s not one of my favorites but the purpose of his email was laudable. He wanted me to sign his petition for immigration reform. Being in favor of immigration reform is like being in favor of clean air. Who could be against it? It’s how we get there that’s tricky, starting with defining what “there” means.

This email reminded me that ICCFA members should be contacting their congressional representatives and senators with constituent input. Frankly, that’s a civic duty and shame on us who don’t bother. Whatever shape immigration reform takes, it will affect all of us on several different levels. From a strictly business viewpoint it will determine who are our customers and our employees. Today with all members of Congress being easily accessible to their constituents by email, communicating with our federal legislators has never been easier. The problem  – at least on immigration reform – is what do we say? My morning email from Senator X actually gave me some useful ideas.

The petition he urged me to sign was so generic that I couldn’t imagine why anybody would NOT sign it. But that was the problem. It urged Congress to resolve our immigration problems, including the much vaunted “pathway to citizenship,” without shedding any light on just how we do that. So here are some thoughts in trying to determine what we want to say in guiding our legislators in that genuinely personal email we send them.

First, as politicians always seem to do, is their use of loosey-goosey terminology. I should write a dictionary on these terms. “Revenue enhancement” means tax increases; taking “collective action” means more government regulations; reducing a proposed increase in benefits is called a “spending cut.” An illegal alien is now called an “undocumented worker.” Personally, I don’t like the term “alien” - it reminds me of sci-fi movies starring Sigourney Weaver.  To be at least consistent we should be calling unlicensed drivers “undocumented motorists.” At any rate, a term both accurate and humane needs to be coined that covers extra-legal and often desperate émigrés who are mainly seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

If we operated our businesses with this type of smoke and mirrors, all we would have left is a lot of stale air and illusions. The term “immigration reform” should refer to the process of admitting residents of other countries who wish to become residents of this country. This really is a separate issue from what my friendly senator wants me to sign. The challenge facing us is the reportedly twelve million people who are already living in the U.S. They are not strictly speaking “immigrants” because many have been here for years and this situation begs the question of who exactly is an immigrant. It reminds me of what Will Rogers (who was part Cherokee) said to members of the elite, “Your ancestors may have come over on the “Mayflower” but mine were on the shore waiting to meet them.”

What the politicians really mean is “citizenship reform.” There is something distinctly un-American about the idea of rounding up hundreds, thousands, indeed millions of people who have established lives and families in this country and expelling them from our borders. And there is something distinctly American – it used to be called Yankee Ingenuity – about figuring out a win/win solution.

So in the spirit of providing substantive and constructive comments to our friends in Congress, let me suggest some comments on the “path to citizenship.” As I understand the proposals, illegal, uh, undocumented workers will have to be forthcoming and identify themselves to the authorities. They will not be deported or imprisoned for their presence here but they will be assessed a monetary penalty for their unlawful entry into this country. I have no idea how much money this will be. Then they will be required to straighten out their tax status by filing past due income tax returns and paying their back taxes and accrued interest. Again, I haven’t heard how many years back that covers. The IRS generally has a three-year limit if there’s no indication of fraud. Where there is fraud, IRS can go back as far it wants to. So will the failure of undocumented workers to file tax returns be considered fraudulent and if so, will that require another type of amnesty to stay on the path to citizenship (and out of jail)?   

Let’s say the answer to these questions is in the affirmative, so a person steps forward, owns up to their status, and wants to straighten out everything to avoid prosecution, deportation, and eventually become a U.S. citizen. Time out for a reality check. Where do these individuals get the money to pay the penalty for unlawful entry, for back taxes and interest? I’m not the first one to raise this issue but I haven’t heard anything said about the businesses that employed and paid these undocumented workers over the years. Will they too be given amnesty for hiring illegal aliens? (Apparently it’s OK to use that term when speaking of American business owners). I am going to suggest that both amnesty programs are mutually necessary otherwise I can see situations where the individual wants to sign on for the citizen pathway only to be threatened with firing by his employer who will be liable for fines and penalties as a result.

I’ll leave aside the issue of the administration of such amnesty programs but it has to be huge. How to keep track of millions of people participating in a federal program that currently does not exist? I don’t know but it has to be expensive. Perhaps the spirit of Yankee Ingenuity can be harnessed to earmark the moneys paid for back taxes and interest and penalties for the new bureaucracy that will have to be created.  But once again our government would be doing what it does best: spending money it has not collected on a program where the expenses have been underestimated.  

The bottom line: something has to be done and by now I hope I’ve demonstrated why you don’t want to leave the politicians unmonitored to develop their own pathway to citizenship. So when you email your members of Congress (I didn’t say “if” but “when” as in right now), I suggest you stress three guiding principles: 1.) except for cases involving violent crimes, deportation is unworkable and impractical; 2.) the pathway to citizenship must spell out how individuals make payments for their back taxes, interest and penalties, and how the administration of the program will be funded; and 3.)  amnesty should be extended to employers of undocumented workers seeking citizenship.

Most of our politicians see future voters and taxpayers at the end of this process, so avoiding a certain amount of cynicism over their concerns is not easy. But to keep the real issue in perspective, when I say “individuals,” I’m referring to people who are destined to become our future customers and our future colleagues at work. So I’ll be responding to Senator X but not quite in the generalized and vague way he was hoping. You should too.

P.S.  After posting this, I indeed contacted my two senators through the email facilities of and also my representative at Your zip code is your key to entry because no member of Congress wants to hear from anybody except his or her constitiuents. That's not unreasonable but my Congressman insisted on my entering my NINE-digit zip code. I felt like I had to pass a quiz to write him. All three members require that I select the subject matter and I specified "Immigration." After sending my message to one of my senators, his website helpfully announced that it was showing me my senator's statements on this topic. OK, good - but then nothing was listed. Again, we all really need to communicate with these people!


Bob Fells's picture

How Much is That Funeral? Observations on CNBC's "Death:It's A Living"


How Much Is That Funeral? Observations on CNBC’s “Death: It’s A Living”

by Bob Fells, ICCFA Executive Director

By now there is a consensus that the CNBC program, “Death: It’s A Living,” is that rarity of rarities: a fair, well-balanced mainstream media exploration of the funeral services profession. I say well-balanced because it seems that just about everything was covered, from inside the manufacturing plants for caskets, inside the funeral home, the cemetery and the crematory. Industry scandals were covered but, for once, they weren’t the focal point of the show. Everybody got their say including the industry critic.

Special thanks must go to our colleagues and suppliers who were willing to go on camera. I’ve done that and I have coached others who have done that. There is a little fear of misspeaking, but the greater concern is that the footage will be manipulated into Lord knows what. A typical reaction to watching yourself in the finished production is finding that some of your best points were not aired but left on the cutting room floor.

That said, honesty compels me to state that “Death: It’s A Living” has set a very high standard by which all future media reports into our profession should be judged. This program is light years away from the dreary “60 Minutes” segment and MONEY magazine article of last year that were shocked, shocked to find that perfection did not reign in the funeral services profession.  Physician, cure thyself.

Perhaps most impressive in the CNBC program is the welcomed use of statistics to provide viewers with genuine perspective. For example, we are told that there are 2.5 million deaths each year in the U.S.; there are 20,000 funeral homes; 50,000 cemeteries of which 90 percent are nonprofit; the public companies account for 14 percent of the market; the national cremation rate is over 40 percent with some states significantly exceeding that average.

The flashiest stat was citing our trade as a $17 billion a year industry. I’m not sure where they came up with that number but it pales in comparison to the breakfast cereals industry, which hauls in $24 billion annually.  That’s a lot of Cheerios. CNBC even told us the fate of those who ran off with the money, something that 60 Minutes “forgot” to mention. It was nice to see the windows opened and the breeze come in.

Prices were quoted, both retail and wholesale, without being judgmental about them. But let’s face it, the typical reaction to any price for funeral-related services or merchandise is surprise that it “costs that much.”  This begs the question of how much should a funeral cost? I’ll use the term “funeral” generically to include all phases of goods and services including cremation. So how much should a funeral cost, or a house, a car, a college education, a wedding reception? The answer in every case is that it depends on what you want. What kind of house, car, college education, wedding reception, or funeral do you want?

If there is sticker shock on funerals, it may be because few people know what funerals cost or why, unlike houses, cars, etc. And where there is no understanding of pricing, there will always be dissatisfaction with the price once known. Do funerals cost too much? Do houses cost too much? How about groceries, not to mention gasoline? If the CNBC program suggests any homework for the funeral profession, it is that we need to get busy and hold a sensible discussion with the public about our prices.

Most of us can evaluate the price of a car and nobody has to explain to us why a Porsche costs considerably more than, say, a Ford. And if we are offered a Porsche for the price of a Ford we will rightly become very suspicious.  But why would we pay more for a Porsche when it provides the same basic reliable transportation as a Ford? Again, we know the answer is that intangible “prestige value” that comes from driving a Porsche. Many of us will say that this consideration is silly, but others see the car they drive as making a statement about themselves.

The same considerations influence funerals but they are less understood by the public: a plain pine box serves the same function as a bronze casket but some consumers will find intangible values in the bronze that are absent from the pine, at least for them. The real challenge is comparing two caskets that appear the same but have very different prices. Funeral professionals can explain why there is a difference, but only the consumer can decide whether those differences are important to him or her. I have known consumers who wanted the most inexpensive casket but saw great value in purchasing an elaborate memorial for the grave – or chose cremation but selected an expensive “designer” urn. It all comes back to what has value – and relevance – to the consumer.

Once upon a time, talking about our funeral was called the “last taboo” topic in America. For a variety of reasons, this no longer seems to be the case and for the most part this is a good thing. But we may have only moved the ball a bit forward on the field. The new “taboo’ topic may be discussing the pricing of funerals and why they cost what they cost. To think that funeral prices should have a mystique is indeed a mistake, leaving us open to charges of greed, among other things. It’s difficult to be greedy when the average funeral home profit is 6 percent. So thank you, CNBC, for showing the need for open discussions on just how much that funeral costs.

beyondtherainbow's picture

Grieving the loss of a family pet


Navigating grief is never easy. And there's no "right way" to do it.  But a good way to start walking down the recovery path is to write about your faithful friend.  It doesn't have to be neat and pretty, just take out a sheet of paper and start jotting down random thoughts of what your friend was and is to you.  Things he did, where he loved to sleep, things that made you laugh.  After a bit, the tears will turn to laughter, and then the healing can begin.  

But you'll be 10 minutes from feeling normal, for a long time. It's been 2 months since our beloved Peeve crossed over to the Bridge, and just yesterday, I turned around and looked to make sure he wasn't trying to run out the back door.  His food bowl still sits on the corner of my desk, where he always ate.  It is okay to keep physical reminders of your baby around.  You will look at them and smile, remembering a special time.    

This was your baby, and you've suffered a death...just like any other death in  your family.  And it just takes time for that pain in your gut to subside.  But it will, I promise.  Just keep talking, and writing, about your sweet baby, and time will heal...I promise.

Until then, send bubble kisses to heaven, plant a memorial garden, and know that the love you gave, and the love that you received, will never die.   

Todd Van Beck's picture

Saying goodbye to 2012


December 31, 2012


2012, as they all have been in my life, was one interesting year.

Successes and failures were experienced, as has been the case over my entire life.

I made some new friends, and lost some old friends.

I had days of despair, and days of joy.

My longtime dream of getting my own funeral home once again went up in smoke, but then in short order I landed on solid ground with a great position managing daily funeral service activities, still writing and still doing seminars.

Then of all things right at the end of the year – before the Christmas holiday – Sandy Hook happened.

I have written, spoken, lectured and taught about death and dying for over 40 years now, and while I never ever really thought (I know my limitations) that I had the absolute correct insight concerning these subjects when I learned about Sandy Hook I was brutally reminded once again of two things; first, we probably are not as far ahead of barbarism as we delude ourselves in thinking, and two, the Grim Reaper still possesses the power to bring even the most sophisticated and intelligent of our species to their knees.

The Sandy Hook tragedy also reinforced in my mind the absolute correctness of funeral rituals and ceremonies.  In fact it reinforced my agreement with the thinking of the great Erik Erikson who wrote “Communities cannot long survive without rituals and ceremonies.”

When I arrived at work on the Monday following the massacre it was abundantly evident that while our staff was talking nonstop about the tragedy, in the end it was only talk – the people talking needed to act on their feelings.  Even though hundreds of miles separated the staff from Connecticut, still grief knows no boundaries, and our people needed to do something.

We decided to take the initiative and plan a memorial service commemorating not only the people slaughtered at Sandy Hook, but here in Memphis we had had a police officer killed in the line of duty the very same week.

I planned the event for the upcoming Friday which translated in that we had basically three full days to prepare for this ritual.

In the end both the mayors of the City of Memphis and of Shelby County showed up and spoke, but the impact of this ritual was the same as every funeral service I have ever been involved with, the ritual accomplished two almost mystical things:  first, it gave people a little bit of peace of mind, and second, it gave people a great big piece of feeling as they had done the right thing.

Following our service people came up to me and simply said “Thank You” with tears streaming from their faces.  That was all we needed to once again verify the mystical power of the funeral ritual.

Professionally I knew that the great members of the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association would help – there are always so many great American funeral directors who show up to help in times like these.  I knew that our great and valued vendors and suppliers would step up to the plate with benevolence and generosity – which they did in a big way.  I knew that each bereaved family would be well tended to and taken care of by members in our great profession.

As usual the anti-funeral people were silent.  Nothing showed up on their web sites, no newspaper reporter sought them out for an “exclusive” to get their “spin” on things and with good reason.  It is very difficult to criticize an ancient funeral ritual when the entire globe is involved in the rituals, albeit from far distances, but still involved.  Precisely the same thing happened with Jessica Mitford’s book sales after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  I find it so interesting that when people are NOT involved intimately with a funeral the criticisms abound, but let that same person become intimately affected by the funeral ceremony and the criticism oddly vanish.  Such is life, I guess, or better said might be, such is death anxiety.

2012 was an interesting year.  For our great noble profession, once again the tragedies of life thrust funeral professionals not in the limelight, but in the quiet service light, and once again funeral professionals did their jobs with quite diligence, gentle persistence of purpose and of course the six keys in funeral service: respect, dignity, honor, care, concern and compassion.

This is a grand profession, I have always so blessed to be a funeral director, even with all my warts.

Anyway, that’s one old undertaker’s opinion.


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