When Sharon Stewart was 21 years old, her brother was killed in a car accident.
Before he was embalmed, Stewart wanted to see his body to make sure he didn’t suffer; but the mortician refused. She wanted to kiss her brother while he was lying in the casket, but the funeral director discouraged it.
“That is what I needed for my healing process,” Stewart said, but she didn’t get it. From that point forward, Stewart believed death did not have to be a sterile, taboo experience; it could be an experience steered by love, support and celebration.
Today, she is a certified death midwife supporting individuals who are dying, and their families. She holds seminars, presentations and discussion-based Death Cafes all over the Midwest to educate people about their rights and to help people be more comfortable with death.
From 10-11 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 11 at the Verona Senior Center, Stewart will facilitate the first Death Cafe. This is a series of three, the additional cafes are on Nov. 8 and Dec. 13.
Stewart describes Death Cafes as discussions where small groups of people sit around a table and come together to talk about the sometimes difficult topic. Anyone is welcome to the discussions: People who are dying, who have experienced the death of a loved one or people who have never talked about death before.
Stewart uses a game called “Go Wish,” similar to “Go Fish,” to break the ice. Each card has a topic on it that sparks a conversation.
“What’s the most important thing for you to hang on to at the end of life: your dignity, your religion, your mind?” Stewart said as an example.
Stewart has facilitated dozens of Death Cafes and each discussion is different, she said. The group leads the discussion, and Stewart usually sits back and observes. Sometimes people ask things like “does it hurt to die?” Stewart said, and others want to talk about the pragmatic steps to dying such as how to plan a funeral.
The goal of the Death Cafe is to make death a more comfortable topic. By comfortable, Stewart means understanding the outcome of the situation, knowing what the dying person wants and who is going to carry out their wishes.
Stewart believes by normalizing death, it will be a better experience for the living and terminally ill.
“It’s so much easier for the bereavement period if those plans are already done,” she said. “The family can spend time with their loved one at the end and have a beautiful send off.”
After people become more comfortable with death, they can be an advocate for themselves, Stewart said. She encourages everyone to know what they want at end of life and tell their families, their community, their church and anyone they can.
She said in American culture, discussions about death are often procrastinated until “the time is right.” People feel uncomfortable talking about death, to the point where they just avoid it.
Stewart rhetorically asked, how often does someone in a funeral receiving line say, “I don’t know what to say,” to the bereaved.
“We spend more time planning a wedding or a birthday party than we do talking about what we want at the end of life,” Stewart said.
In her opinion, it is the unknown aspects of dying that makes death such a taboo topic. Often families and individuals don’t know their choices, or what to expect. Once people start talking about death, and it becomes less frightening, Stewart said, the dying can then advocate for themselves.
“I am not saying death is always beautiful – hell no,” she said. “Death can be sad and scary, but if we normalize death we can have those beautiful moments and experiences that will never happen again.”