Johnson County holds third death café

BY CORY PORTER | APRIL 07, 2015 5:00 AM

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With a name such as “Death Café,” it’d be easy to mistake it as a dour, morbid affair, but laughter could be heard coming from the room all the way down the hall.

Local residents, mostly seniors, gathered for the third Death Café meeting at the Senior Center, 28 S. Linn St., on Monday to talk about all things death and dying but with an attitude usually absent from such heavy subjects.

Participants spoke at length about advance directives, which are plans for a person who is dying or going to die, grief over losing family and friends, and even writing their wills and tombstones.

“It’s like, well, who knows me better than me? So I’ll just write it myself,” Linne Hungerford, a participant, said about writing her will.

While comfortable with chronicling what had come before death, Hungerford said she didn’t have any idea about what would come after.

“As far as I’m concerned, my journey on this planet ends when I die, and that’s about it,” she said. “I don’t know anything more. Maybe I’ll show up on another planet or something, who knows?” The last elicited a big laugh from the other members.

There was a candid and lighthearted attitude throughout, and most people were eager to share their feelings and experiences.

“I found it interesting. ‘Oh gosh, you’re going to talk about death at a senior center?’ and I thought ‘Well, why not?’ and why not bring it in and have any age group just come and talk about their perspective?” said Michelle Buhman, a program specialist for the Senior Center, who started the Iowa City gathering.

Death Café is a nonprofit organization that provides information for people wanting to start clubs, which has resulted in their popping up all over the United States and around the world, Buhman said.

Conversations about dying often go ignored, she said, which can result in people not thinking or preparing for its inevitability, so the point of the club was to get people thinking in a new way.

“When you have that in your mind, it changes the way you communicate with another person, and I just think that people can get a lot of good out of thinking about it that way,” she said.

Subhash Jain spoke about death through the lens of his religion — Jainism, which, he said, has a lot to do with karma and making sure a person’s karmic balance isn’t upset.

Jain said this means not hurting or killing any living thing, even an insect, and as many people know, age can make it harder to perform certain tasks.

“Suppose your eyesight gets very weak,” he said. “You can’t see anything and you step on a insect and kill it, so you are not meeting your objective; your objective is to reduce your karmic law.”

What Jainists can do then, Jain said, was choose to fast to death over a period of time, so that their karmic balance doesn’t continue to get more unbalanced.

“You have a right to die by fasting, fasting to death, and the reason is very simple: Jainism is based on the karma doctrine,” he said.

Joe Michaud spoke about grief over the death of his parents that last for 20 or 30 years and how meditation helped him.

“One day, I was in meditation, and suddenly this thing opened up for me, with the realization that I had mourned my parents when they had left me in that school,” he said. “That changed me. That really freed me from a lot of stuff.”

While the discussions were very serious, most of the people who shared would punctuate it with a joke, which, Buhman said, was a goal.

“We want it to be a happy thing; death isn’t fun, necessarily, but if you can come and talk about and you can take some of that scariness away from it, then I think it opens up a lot of things,” she said.

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