Demystifying Death at the Somerville Public Library

Alan Bingham in the Somerville Public Library following the Jan. 23 Death Cafe. Photo by Lilly Milman.

There was an air of lightness in the Central Library auditorium as a group of about twenty strangers—varying in age and occupation, from young grad students to older, retired residents—sat in a circle, coffee and tea in hand, ready to discuss the theme of death on the evening of Jan. 23. No, this wasn’t a book club—it was a Death Cafe.

A Death Cafe is a group-directed discussion of death—not a grief support or counseling session—with no specific agenda, objective, or themes, according to the movement’s official website. It began as a movement in 2011 in the U.K. when the late founder Jon Underwood enlisted his mother, a psychotherapist, to facilitate a conversation about death with a small group in his home. 

The following year, Underwood and his mother published a guide for hosting a Death Cafe. Within months, the movement reached the United States by way of Lizzy Miles and Maria Johnson in Ohio.

In Somerville, resident Alan Bingham has taken up the role of leading the conversation. Bingham, who has now hosted four Death Cafes in the city and has another coming up later this week, has worked in health care all of his life. Specifically, he has decades of expertise in hospice and end-of-life care. He is also the author of the book “Dying Well Prepared: Conversations and Choices for Terminal Patients.”

Encouraging conversations about death is important “because we don’t talk about it, and people don’t know how to,” he says.  

While Bingham provided answers about death and filled in the conversation during pauses, he also allowed the group to dictate the topic of conversation. Some chose to talk about personal experiences with the death of relatives or friends, while others asked pragmatic questions about preparing for one’s own eventual death. The discussion was both specific and abstract—tackling individual misgivings and cultural phenomena surrounding the end of life.

“We used to do this a century ago,” Bingham says, referring to what he believes to be an American cultural shift that occurred during the 20th century. He attributes the rise of the funeral and death industry to death becoming a taboo subject.

As the attendees became more comfortable with each other, jokes also found their way into the discussion. The laughter gave the night a friendly feeling, but this was not necessarily a conversation for the faint of heart. 

“I don’t think I’m afraid of death. I’m afraid of other people dying,” one person in attendance mentions quietly, followed by a reference to the 2007 comedy film “The Bucket List” minutes later. 

Bingham himself jokes, “None of us are getting out of here alive.”

A few overarching suggestions Bingham has for everyone 18 years old and older is preparing a will and an advance directive—or, a written statement including one’s wishes regarding medical treatment. He also recommends, in some cases, preparing an Ethical will—a document originating in Jewish culture that is meant to pass down ethical and cultural values between generations. 

The Jan. 23 Death Cafe has been Bingham’s favorite so far, he says, because the group was much more diverse than past events he’s led. While the first event he led in Somerville was predominantly an older crowd, the group skewed younger this time around, which he believes is evidence that conversations about death are becoming more widespread and common—even among those who have not personally faced it before.

As the night drew to a close, a few attendees began exchanging recommendations with each other for books that dealt with death. “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death?” by funeral director Caitlin Doughty was among the most popular. The best seller has been lauded for opening conversations with its sometimes funny, sometimes dark answers to common questions asked by kids. Coincidentally, it was already checked out. 

The next Death Cafe will be held on Feb. 6 at the East Branch from 7 to 8:30 p.m. To learn more about the Death Cafe movement, visit deathcafe.com. 

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About the Author

Lilly Milman
Lilly Milman is the managing editor at Scout Magazines. She started as an intern while attending Emerson College in downtown Boston, where she received a B.A. in Writing, Literature and Publishing.

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