Jefferey A. Breau, an MDiv candidate who works in psychedelic chaplaincy and helped found the Death Cafe, explained that “it was really out of a recognition that there was a hunger for open conversations about death and dying.”
Jefferey A. Breau, an MDiv candidate who works in psychedelic chaplaincy and helped found the Death Cafe, explained that “it was really out of a recognition that there was a hunger for open conversations about death and dying.” By Sachi Laumas

Acid and Cake at the Death Cafe

Death Cafe provides an opening, if imperfect, for inquiry about finding meaning with or without religiosity.
By Hannah W. Duane

Walking into the low-lit Braun Room of Harvard Divinity School on a rainy and altogether miserable Wednesday night to attend my first Death Cafe, I didn’t quite know what to expect.

I’d done my journalistic due-diligence on Death Cafe, a project with chapters all over the world that aims to de-stigmatize conversations about death and dying. I met with the founders of the latest rendition of Death Cafe at the Divinity School to discuss their motivations for restarting the project, their academic work, their professional lives, the kinds of questions people brought to the space.

I learned about death-awareness, death doulas, and psychedelics. That Death Cafe is meant to be a space to talk freely — not therapy or a grief circle, just a conversation. I knew it was traditional to serve cake and tea. I knew it was for all faith backgrounds, for students in HDS as much as members of the greater Cambridge community.

Confusion remained my primary orientation.

The evening started slowly, as I made small talk with the current student leader of Death Cafe, Kristen Maples. That morning, she’d presented her thesis on watching horror films as a sacred practice, and was decked out in a scary movies t-shirt and a single bloody knife earring. “I don’t usually dress on theme,” she told me. Soon enough we were a group of nine, eating the promised cake (chocolate) and sitting on couches by the unlit fireplace.

Maples began with a simple introduction, inviting everyone to share what brought them to the room that evening. We went in a circle, each person’s comments stretching into minutes. Each remark was thoughtful, vulnerable even — reflections on different kinds of deaths (marriages, personalities, aspirations, grandparents), different faith traditions, Covid-19.

I was a little startled. I hadn’t fully thought through the implications of participating in, rather than passively reporting on, the event.

But when the circle got to me, after introducing myself as a reporter, I found myself saying:

“I got hurt last summer, two concussions in two weeks because of interactions with large animals. Before that, I don’t think I really thought I could get hurt. But then a three-month old calf kicked me in the head and my body felt much more material. More impermanent.”

Strange. I had not connected the injury to Death Cafe, or my interest in writing this piece, before I opened my mouth. I speak about the accident mostly as an inconvenience: I am embarrassed to have lingering symptoms. But it felt true.

When the introductions ended, Maples opened the space. It was quiet for a moment, awkward with the enormity of the topic and the intimacy of having shown up. But soon enough someone began to speak, and the conversation flowed from one tangent to the next.

We talked about people’s things and what to do with them once they’d died, the time scale of human existence, how fleeting this whole project is. A woman with large rings on every finger (save the indexes) suggested Earth as a kind of classroom for Heaven.

Another pondered soul groups — the idea that we exist on earth with a group of souls meant to teach us something — and what it might be like to reconnect with ex-husbands or ex-friends in the beyond.

Book recommendations were made. And birds were observed to be uncanny reminders of the dead.


When I talked to founders and members of Death Cafe about their motivations for restarting the group, they all gave me different accounts of what Death Cafe is for.

Jefferey A. Breau, an MDiv candidate who works in psychedelic chaplaincy, explained that “it was really out of a recognition that there was a hunger for open conversations about death and dying.” He had a sense that many of his Divinity School peers who, like himself, planned to go into death work, were yearning to connect.

His questions are big: “What does it mean to accompany somebody as they’re dying? What does it mean to reflect on your own death? How is that part of a spiritual practice?”

Death Cafe, Breau says, provides “a framework of curiosity and exploration.” It’s a place to let these questions into the open, to play.

Isabella Carr, founder of DeathFat Doula who, according to her website, “specializes in caring for fat people and supporting them through the spiritual and practical considerations unique to living and dying in a fat body,” wants to make room within Death Cafe for conversation about the more tangible side of death.

Her work brings her towards the practical components of death and dying — cost, funeral logistics, family expectations. And this is part of how she conceives of Death Cafe: as a space for these questions.

“Do you know what you want?” She asks. “Do you have assets that you want to be given to people? Is that written down anywhere?”

When I talked to Maples and Twyla Barkakoty, another one of the founding members, they emphasized that even at HDS, there isn’t a lot of room to talk about death. When Maples first presented the idea in class, she had people coming up to her in the halls asking about it. Some people come to Death Cafe to be validated in their feelings around grief, they told me. Others bring a specific religious or academic angle; some just sit and write.

“Death is a big scary word for a lot of people,” Barkakoty says. Given this, she feels there is value in convening a “social ritual gathering where we’ll just, you know, eat cake.”

Our conversation kept returning to this idea of the secular, or social, ritual — the idea that ritual activity isn’t bound to organized religion. “There’s a lot of religious disaffiliation,” Barkakoty says. “A lot of people describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.” That doesn’t mean they’re not searching, that they don’t want ritual.

I left these conversations more confused than I entered.

How did destigmatizing conversation fit together with exploring a possible vocation fit together with interfaith dialogue? What was the relationship between navigating death in the digital age and paperwork? Or the problem of over-intellectualizing and new research on psychedelics?

I won’t claim that attending Death Cafe resolved any of this for me. After all, it’s too big a question: What are we to do with the fact that we are all going to die?

During our first conversation, Maples told me about “the rise of the religious ‘nones’” — the people who identify themselves as having no religion in particular. According to Pew Research, this is 28 percent of Americans. But, surprisingly, seven in 10 say they “believe in God or some higher power.”

The more I sit in my confusion, the more I start to think the answer is here — Death Cafe is serving the confusion that comes with this liminal position.

I’ll admit, I’m no stranger to this liminality. I grew up in a secular household; I am an active member of Harvard’s Orthodox Jewish community. The path between the two was, and is, searching. While questions about death have not been at the center of my own inquiry, the need for a framework beyond the atheistic rationalist has dominated my young adult life. And while for me, the “secular not religious” question came down on the religious side, I know I am in the minority.

Death Cafe provides an opening, if imperfect, for this kind of inquiry. The net is big enough to provide an honest attempt at meaning making in a secularizing world: in only one evening, we discussed the ethics of loading someone’s data into a chat bot so relatives left behind can “talk” to them, acid trips, and the death of the person you thought you were going to be. It is also too big. For most of the evening I wondered if we were talking about anything at all. But in a community that tends to lean hard away from this mode of engagement, maybe the absurd is the price of fresh inquiry.

— Magazine writer Hannah W. Duane can be reached at

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