The tea was ready, the cake was cut and Day of the Dead napkins, plates and cups were on the counter.
It's OK to feel comforted and to celebrate life when the topic of conversation is death. That's the idea behind Death Cafe, a group-directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes.
"When people face their mortality, they live life more intensely and value every moment they have," said Death Cafe co-facilitator Tina Boettcher. "That's why Death Cafe has cake. We eat cake because we celebrate life."
"And we drink tea because it's comforting," added co-facilitator Naomi Wilansky.
Death Cafe is a discussion group, not a grief support group or a counseling session. The first discussion was Feb. 18 at The Foundry Community Room, 915 E. Washington St., Bloomington; the second was in April and the third is set for 6:30 p.m. June 10 at the same location.
"Each session is stand-alone, but everyone is invited to attend as often as they want to," Boettcher said. "It's open to anyone. It's for people of any (faith) tradition and for people of no (faith) tradition."
Attendees have included 20-somethings to 80-somethings. Some are health care or human services professionals but most are not. Many have had experiences with death and dying and want to gain a greater understanding — for the sake of an aging loved one, client or themselves.
"Some people feel if they ignore it (death), it's not going to happen to them," Boettcher said.
"Death is a taboo topic," Wilansky said. "I want it to not be a taboo topic. Death Cafe is an opportunity to be in community, talking about death."
"Our objective is to increase awareness of death so people can live life more fully," Boettcher said.
Boettcher is a spiritual director at St. Mary's Parish in Bloomington, where she guides people in their spiritual journey, and is director of religious education.
Wilansky is a social worker/psychotherapist in private practice in Normal and is a lay song leader, a prayer specialist in the religious school and co-chair of the social action committee at Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington.
Wilansky's mother had been ill for years and died when Wilansky was 9 years old but her anticipated death was not discussed with Wilansky until shortly before her mother died.
"If I was given an opportunity to know she was going to die, I wouldn't have spent the next 25 years processing it," she said.
Wilansky raised her daughter to realize that death is a part of life and Wilansky worked in hospice for a while.
Boettcher grew up in an Irish-Catholic family, where a death meant a traditional Irish wake with sharing of food, drink, stories, grieving and laughter.
But as she has sat with people as they have died and as she's talked with people about near-death experiences, she found that a lot of people didn't want to talk about death.
The two women independently heard about Death Cafe, which began in England in 2011. Since then, according to the Death Cafe website, 8,210 Death Cafe gatherings have taken place in 65 countries.
Boettcher and Wilansky attended Death Cafes elsewhere, were introduced to each other by a mutual acquaintance and organized the first Death Cafe in February, when 13 people attended.
Nine people attended Monday night's gathering. While Death Cafes are confidential, the participants welcomed a reporter, although some asked that their names not be used.
Some participants talked about end-of-life planning and were encouraged to do so for their aging parents and themselves. Some people talked about being reluctant to bring up a deceased loved one to a friend.
"People don't want to upset the person," Wilansky observed. "But people who have lost a loved one are thinking about that loved one all the time. You bringing it up to them isn't going to upset them. It'll comfort them."
Among participants were Ellen Anderson, 63, of Normal, hospice chaplain and bereavement coordinator with Kindred Hospice in Bloomington; Mike Kokal, 53, of Springfield, an attorney; Cindy Termuende, 47, of Bloomington, a massage therapist; and Dan Liechty, 64, of Normal, a professor of social work at Illinois State University.
"Death Cafe — that intrigued me. I like to hear peoples' experiences and stories and thought it would help me in my profession," Anderson said after the gathering.
"Everyone's experiences (with death) are so different but the commonality is it's a profound experience that shapes peoples' lives," Anderson said. "Groups like this are meaningful."
"Life here is so short and we don't really appreciate it for what it is," Kokal said. "But when we talk about it (death), there is something that raises everyone's spirituality together. You form connections that are more than casual."
"Don't be afraid to sit down with family members and talk about death," Anderson advised. "It's inevitable. Death is a part of life."