Mt. Tam Church Hosts “Death Cafe”

September 11, 2014

Mt. Tam UMC, Mill Valley, serves the richest mission field in the United States, because we are located in the most “unchurched” county in the nation. For that reason, one of the most important outreach goals for Mt. Tam Church is to find "cross-over" functions: events that will appeal to our highly secular community and the congregation, as a bridge to serve our neighbors in a nonthreatening, inviting and vital way. So, “Death Cafe” seemed like a natural for us,” Pastor Kim Smith enthusiastically explained after a first “Death Cafe” to be hosted by Mt. Tam Church, in conjunction with Hospice by the Bay and Death Cafe facilitator Nancy Rhine. Rhine, a member of the congregation is a MFT therapist who specializes in seniors and their families. As she began her practice, centered at the Interfaith Counseling Center, where Pastor Smith serves on the board, she began to realize that there was no place for her clients and their families to talk about death. An internet search found Death Cafe, a movement started in 2004 by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. Taken to the United Kingdom in 2011 by Jon Underwood, Death Cafe is a movement that simply provides a safe and open place to “talk about death in order to make the most of your finite life.”

Now a world-wide movement (over 1000 cafes with 10,000 participants in 90 countries!), Death Cafe provides the rare opportunity for people of all beliefs and backgrounds to talk about death together. The September 10 event at Mt. Tam Church took place in the church’s sanctuary, which allowed the almost 50 participants to get a sense of the center of the church’s spiritual life. Small groups of six talked for almost two hours, with a break for tea, coffee and cake, a Death Cafe tradition.

Facilitators rotated through groups, to check to make sure that safety and openness were being operated. Pastor Smith, Ms. Rhine, a Hospice staff person and retired pastor Norma Jean Powell served as facilitators. Several church members attended and found non-religious friends and neighbors there. Pastor Smith overheard one casual conversation between a church member and a man who had declared himself “firmly agnostic and not sure about being in a church": “Bob, I didn’t know you came to this church. I didn’t even know anyone in Marin really came to church! To think that you are a Christian…well, that changes some things for me!” That same member left the event with this comment to the pastor: “I feel such a sense of relief. Ever since my wife died, I’ve wanted to talk about death. I was able to bring my own faith into the circle and that was supported and respected.

That our church hosted this event makes me so happy.” Future Death Cafe events will include one timed for the Christmas holidays. Pastor Smith is considering offering a “Blue Christmas” service in conjunction with another Death Cafe. “Any event we can host that lets our very unchurched community know we care and we are here for them is spreading the Gospel in this place. I’m so grateful for Nancy and her ministry. I believe this is part of the Spirit’s call to us in southern Marin County. The fastest growing segment of the population here is over 65; we are located next door to a senior living community. While death is something for all ages to consider, as we get older, there is more focus on death and dying. Perhaps God is calling us into a new ministry!” For more information about Death Cafe, go to deathcafe.com.