At Delray Beach's First Death Cafe, People Discuss Their Imminent Mortality

At 6:30 p.m. on a recent Monday, six folks from across the tri-county area met at a Delray Beach condominium to talk about death. Maybe the first gathering of its type in South Florida, it was hosted by Suzy Anand Garfinkle, a kind Jewish mother of three. At her condo’s community center overlooking the pool, Garfinkle set up tea, cookies, and pastries for attendees to munch on as they took turns sharing their thoughts about dying at a table cloaked in a kaleidoscopic tie-dye cloth.

“I grew up in a family where death and dying was not discussed," Garfinkle explained. "I find myself having to unlearn death.”

There’s nothing morbid about South Florida’s first Death Café. It’s like a death-themed tea party, and Garfinkle, an upbeat and eloquent host, discusses mortality as if it were tomorrow’s weather forecast. Rather than living in denial, the idea of Death Café is to face the truth of dying in an intimate, welcoming forum. The room is filled with the people you probably bump into at Publix: a red-haired nurse, a tattooed college student, a self-help writer and her British friend. After Garfinkle speaks, she acts as a moderator and keeps the discussion flowing from person to person.

“We don’t go through loss like a movie,” she says. “It’s not as simple as, 'We came, we saw, we died, they accepted.'”

Death Café is a “social franchise” with tiny outposts across the world. It started in England and slowly spread to Portland, New Jersey, and now Delray Beach. More than 3,000 such events have taken place. It’s not about glorifying death but instead is a real conversation about one’s experiences with death, repressed fears, afterlife beliefs, and even burial wishes. According to its website, Death Café aims “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
After Garfinkle, I was called on to speak. I shared the rift I’ve noticed within my own family about death — my father’s eccentric openness about dying and his wishes, my mother’s discomfort speaking about them. Then, the red-haired nurse explained the lack of communication she notices among family members when people are near death. In her job, she said, people prefer not to face death. When it happens — sometimes unexpectedly — loved ones are left fumbling to predict what that person would’ve wanted.

The self-help writer told a story about her first husband and his unexpected passing. She touched upon her mourning as a young woman and how family gives life its meaning. Her friend, a British man, explained how his father’s death nearly destroyed his family because no one was able to speak about the grief they felt.

The last person to speak was the tattooed college student. To him, though, the “little deaths,” or cycles of breakups and job losses, were more jarring than actually dying. When he was a drug addict, death was all too common, he says. Too many young people he knows are dead. Everyone leaned in closer. He shared that he had nearly overdosed and died too. 

For nearly two hours, the discussion continued. There were no tears or awkward silences. Death certainly wasn’t glorified. Everyone expressed interest in attending the next Death Café, which will be held at 6 p.m. September 19. Garfinkle hopes the Death Cafés will happen every month. Everyone is welcome. For more information, visit the Death Café website.  
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Jess Swanson is a staff writer at New Times. Born and raised in Miami, she graduated from the University of Miami’s School of Communication and wrote briefly for the student newspaper until realizing her true calling: pissing off fraternity brothers by reporting about their parties on her crime blog. Especially gifted in jumping rope and solving Rubik’s cubes, she also holds the title for longest stint as an unpaid intern in New Times history. She left the Magic City for New York to earn her master’s degree from Columbia University School of Journalism, where she spent a year profiling circumcised men who were trying to regrow their foreskins for a story that ultimately won the John Horgan Award for Critical Science Journalism. Terrified by pizza rats and arctic temperatures, she quickly returned to her natural habitat.
Contact: Jess Swanson