How doulas and cafes help people break the last taboo – talking about death


In cafes and community centers, classrooms and studios and online, conversations are challenging people’s long-held senses of fear and shame about contemplating death. And a new kind of role, the death educator, is springing up to help facilitate that destigmatization.

It’s a new look for an old vocation, says Cole Imperi, an author and thanatologist, or death researcher.

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The death of someone you love can feel like a very solitary – and silent – experience in America. Death educators are trying to create space for people to talk about everything from wills to questions about the afterlife and their own legacy.

“People who know about death, dying, grief, and loss have always existed and always been in our communities,” she says. Think clergy and bereavement committees, and among Indigenous groups, shamans or medicine women. 

But in the United States, the trends of secularization and increased relocation have left a vacuum.

“If you came from a very conservative background or highly religious background, you might have been taught that you don’t talk about the dead,” she explains. “Many people are raised with different ideas about fear connected to death. People end up carrying this stuff with them throughout their whole lives.”

Where can you find a grandmother knitting a baby blanket next to a teenager crocheting a bikini top? “The cemetery” might not be the likeliest of answers.

Gabrielle Gatto certainly didn’t expect to encounter such a multigenerational scene the first time she arrived at Grieving & Weaving, a monthly meetup at Green-Wood Cemetery in New York City. But she says the event’s broad popularity speaks to universal interest in a topic that’s hard to find opportunities to talk about. 

Both fiber artists probably had “very different motives” for attending, Ms. Gatto says. “But they’re both in that room because they want to talk about grief. They want to live and lead more thoughtful lives.” 

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

The death of someone you love can feel like a very solitary – and silent – experience in America. Death educators are trying to create space for people to talk about everything from wills to questions about the afterlife and their own legacy.

Ms. Gatto is Green-Wood’s resident death educator. She coordinates programs that include financial end-of-life planning seminars and the Mortality & Me book club. Last month, participants gathered for a class on the art of the condolence letter. 

These offerings have been known to fill to capacity, Ms. Gatto says. Death remains a taboo in the outside world, but despite that – or perhaps because of it – community members are eager to come and engage with the subject.

“I get to see what people are yearning for, and then create events and programs around it – and make it, dare I say, a little fun, right?” she says. “It’s creating these more positive outlets for processing these kinds of feelings with community.”



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