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'Death cafés' allow Cedar Valley-area residents to explore their own mortality

Books sit on a bookshelf in a library
Courtesy of Melinda Heinz

Death cafés have spread across the globe over the last decade, including in Iowa. UNI professor Melinda Heinz hosts them in the Cedar Valley area, connecting generations through conversations about death in a nonjudgmental or partisan environment.

Once a month, rotating among Cedar Falls and Waterloo, strangers gather at a public library, the UNI campus or local cafés to sip coffee, draw on adult coloring books — and talk about death.

They're conversations that Melinda Heinz, assistant professor of family services at the University of Northern Iowa, wants to normalize. Since November of 2023, she's facilitated these “death cafés” in the Cedar Valley area. They're public gatherings where attendees can openly discuss topics like death and dying, funerals, and loss without someone pushing a certain agenda or belief system.

The locations of the gatherings change, and so does the conversation, as there are no strict guidelines for topics to discuss. Heinz says they're guided by who attends.

"We've had an interesting mix. We've had older adults come, we've had college students come, and they're able to hear from each other about types of loss that they have encountered, and also how they cope with it," she said on IPR's Talk of Iowa.

Topics are wide ranging, and Heinz encourages different viewpoints to enrich the conversation.

"They're able to hear from each other about types of loss that they have encountered, and also how they cope with it."
Melinda Heinz

"We've had students talk about how they are coping with a loss being far from home, maybe far from a support system, and how they're dealing with that. On the other hand, we're hearing from older adults who talk about attending funerals frequently, and I think that's surprising for students to think about," Heinz said.

Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz is credited with inspiring the idea of a death café after his wife died in the early 2000s. In 2011, Jon Underwood founded the first formal death café in East London. The phenomenon quickly spread across Europe before coming to the United States, when Lizzy Miles, a hospice social worker, opened a death café in Columbus, Ohio in 2012.

Heinz was inspired after talking to a colleague who runs death cafés in Ireland, and thought she could bring the concept to Iowa. She shared it with her colleagues at UNI, who were enthusiastic about the idea.

"I thought, the worst that could happen is no one comes, but we were really fortunate with the first one. I think we had about 14 people attend," she said.

The importance of difficult conversations

Heinz says that people don't encounter many opportunities where they're encouraged to have difficult conversations.

Papers, cups, pencils and coffee on a wooden table
Courtesy of Melinda Heinz
Heinz provides coloring sheets to give participants something to focus on when discussing difficult topics

"I think creating a specific place to do that is important to think about our own mortality," she said.

Death cafés provide a space for people to consider their preferences when it comes to dying, death and funerals. Heinz says that at the end of a loved one's life, it's not always clear what they would want, because the time hasn't been taken to discuss those difficult — but necessary — topics.

Death cafés are available virtually online around the world, and Heinz encourages those interested to try talking to people from different cultures to inform important end of life decisions.

Heinz will host a death café at the Dementia Simulation House in Cedar Falls on March 28. The event is free and open to the public, and attendees must be at least 18 years old.

Phineas Pope is a digital production assistant at Iowa Public Radio
Samantha McIntosh is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio. Prior to IPR, Samantha worked as a reporter for radio stations in southeast and west central Iowa under M&H Broadcasting, and before that she was a weekend music host for GO 96.3 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa