Death Becomes Them 

Boise joined in the global Death Cafe phenomenon Friday, November 1.

Sherri Rudai (left) and Susan Randall (right) outside Boise's Muse Building, where they will facilitate Boise's first-ever Death Cafe, Friday, Nov. 1.

Patrick Sweeney

Sherri Rudai (left) and Susan Randall (right) outside Boise's Muse Building, where they will facilitate Boise's first-ever Death Cafe, Friday, Nov. 1.

From Shakespeare to Billy Graham, we have traditionally left talking about death and dying to poets and preachers. As Mark Twain wrote, "A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time." The Bible's Book of John quotes Jesus as saying, "He who believes in me will live, even though he dies."

But a recent global phenomenon is encouraging adults to publicly share their fears and wishes regarding death in a salon-type setting; and it's coming to Boise Friday, Nov. 1.

It's called a Death Cafe and when a flier promoting the first-of-its-kind event for Idaho arrived in the Boise Weekly newsroom, we didn't know if it was a joke or a Dia de Los Muertos-themed event. Our curiosity led us to a Boise coffee house, where we met Susan Randall and Sherri Rudai, both of whom said they are ready to facilitate Boise's Death Cafe. What followed was a laughter- and tear-filled conversation about death that never strayed into talk of religion or the hereafter and which was filled with surprises.

Randall, associate director for Boise State's University Television Productions, has a fascinating hobby--death and dying are her passion.

"I'm a certified death midwife," she said.

Her personal journey, which she said included some sorrow but a great amount of peace, has had several milestones.

"In 1996, a good friend of mine was killed in a car accident," Randall said. "I went to her funeral and she had been embalmed, laid out and dressed in some weird-looking clothes. All of her friends said it was nothing like what she would have normally worn. So, I started thinking about what we could have done differently."

Randall, then a student at Boise State, wrote a research paper on the topic.

"I kept thinking about other funerals in my life that were...," she paused for a beat. "I really want to make sure I use the right word. You know what? They were barbaric."

Randall took a series of classes from 2004-2006 to become a "certified death midwife." When asked what that means, Randall explained she had assisted in a number of family-centric funerals, including a mother of two of Randall's friends. Randall explained that no coroner was needed because it was what she called "an expected death."

"We bathed her, dressed her in beautiful attire and kept dry ice on her torso until it was time to put her into a casket," Randall said. "A lot of people don't know that after rigor mortis sets in, the body actually relaxes. Plus, if you massage the body, you can keep the arms and legs flexible."

Sherri Rudai was also an end-of-life caregiver--not professionally, but personally. She cared for her grandmother, who chose to end her life after a long battle with cancer.

"She called in all of the family and said, 'This is the last time we're going to have a coherent conversation.' She let them know that I was fulfilling her wishes," said Rudai. "She quit taking food and water and died two weeks later."

Rudai needed a moment as her eyes filled with tears.

"I'm sorry. When you love somebody so much, you naturally think that you don't want them to leave. But it was her choice," Rudai said. "And ultimately, I wanted what she wanted."

Randall and Rudai met years after the passing of Rudai's grandmother through their work on film productions at Boise State. Not until they got to know each other personally did they learn that their feelings about death was their strongest bond.

"And now here we are, all set to put on Boise's first Death Cafe," said Rudai. "It really has cachet; it's become so popular."

Death Cafes is a recent phenomenon. Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz is credited with holding a series of living room meetings in 2004 that he called Cafes Mortels. In his book, Cafes Mortels: Sortir la Mort du Silence ("bringing death out of silence"), Crettaz writes, "I have the impression that the assembled company ... thanks to death, is born into authenticity."

Englishman Jon Underwood borrowed the idea a few years later, and the first American Death Cafe was held in Ohio in 2012. It is estimated that more than 300 Death Cafes have been hosted in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, Italy, Portugal, Brazil and Singapore.

"We've been given guidelines on how to facilitate the cafe. For example, they're specific about the length: two hours. And it's extremely important to have refreshments," said Rudai. "We're very fortunate that the owner of The Muse building is a friend of ours, so that's where we'll hold the first one."

Randall said she was anxious to debunk several myths about death and dying.

"For example, it's a common myth that a body has to be embalmed. That's not true. It only has to be embalmed if the body is being transported by a commercial carrier across state lines," she said. "Plus, it's a myth that embalming is done for public health reasons. It's actually the opposite. Do you know what a trocar is? It's a device that punctures the body's organs and sucks them out, as embalming fluid fills the body. Another myth is that some people believe that if a body isn't embalmed, it would start to smell right away. That's also not true."

Ultimately, Randall and Rudai want to demystify what they say is Western culture's reluctance to have an open narrative about death.

"It's important that death doesn't look like this horrible foreboding scene at the end of life," said Rudai. "The Death Cafe isn't a bereavement or grief-support group. Instead, this is going to be a chance for us to talk about death and dying with others who aren't in that white-heat of bereavement."

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