Death positive meet-ups provide safe spaces for taboo topics
The closer we get to Halloween, the more we’re collectively reminded of our mortality. While Societal norms have conditioned us to fear death and avoid grief, local groups like STL Death Cafe encourage people to lean into such topics.
“[Many] people show up after they've experienced what we would call a ‘bad death experience’ — something didn't go quite as we would hope,” said Tracy Gomillion, who founded STL Death Cafe seven years ago. “And they want to ensure that their loved ones have a more positive, well planned and executed death for themselves.”
At these meetups, strangers come together to talk openly about death, dying and grief.
Many of the members have tried to talk about their own death planning with their own loved ones, Gomillion said, “And people don't want to have those conversations.”
“So we try to help each other and affirm each other that those are still very important conversations to have, and to continue trying to have them,” she said, “because death is part of the life process just as much as birth is.”
Gomillion is working with folks like grief educator Eileen Wolfington to introduce more people in the St. Louis region to the death positive movement.
“For me, it's accepting the reality of our mortality — and not waiting until a critical event occurs, a diagnosis or hearing from the doctors, as I heard when my father passed away, ‘He has perhaps six months to a year to live,’” Wolfington said. “And, yes, I grieved, but I was much better prepared than when I lost my mother 20 years ago due to an unexpected death.”
Wolfington carries that acceptance of death with her into Día de Muertos celebrations every year. This year’s holiday, also known as the Day of the Dead, will begin on November 1.
“We believe that our ancestors come back to visit us, and I don't mean that literally — that you're going to see a ghost or a living spirit — but it's the essence of who they were and the life they lived,” she said. “It's a day of remembrance, and it's a day of celebration. So that those emotions that we had when we lost our loved one, hopefully, continue in our hearts.”
Gomillion and Wolfington will participate in St. Louis’ first End of Life Festival this weekend at Bellefontaine Cemetery. Gomillion will facilitate Death Cafe conversations on Saturday and Sunday, and Wolfington will give presentations on Día de Muertos and practice tools for making sense of life and death.
Wolfington shared one such tool on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air: find a way to practice honoring loved ones who have passed.
“Send them love, light a candle, prepare some type of ritual, or find someone that can work with you so that you can feel that you're there. It's the essence of the love that you had for them, because grief will transform into love,” she said. “I hurt immensely when [my] dad died, thinking I would never laugh again. But now I laugh every day, and I even became a laughter yoga leader to honor my dad.”
What: Last Call: An End of Life Festival
When: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on October 15 and 16
Where: Bellefontaine Cemetery (4947 W Florissant Ave, St. Louis, MO 63115)
What: STL Death Cafe
When: Gatherings at 6 p.m. the second Wednesday of every month
Where: City Foundry (3730 Foundry Way, St. Louis, MO 63110)
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.