The Death Café is open

Diana Sayegh, Heartwood Cemetery manager, kneels beside a natural-burial grave at the Heartwood Preserve in Trinity. There, bodies are buried naturally the old-fashioned way with no embalming. Caskets are optional, and many choose nothing but a crisp, white sheet wrapping. Sayegh leads regular sessions of the Death Café, which is a group to help people become more comfortable with death and dying.

TRINITY — Gathering with others, having a slice of cake, drinking hot tea — all that’s missing from your standard café experience is a topic for conversation. How about “death?”

Not only is the topic not off limits at the West Pasco Death Café, it’s all they talk about.

Not a true café per se, Death Café is the name given to some 11,000 groups around the world where all things death and dying are discussed. Local Café meetings are held at the Heartwood Preserve in Trinity, a natural or “green” cemetery on Starkey Road a bit north of State Road 54.

The Café meets every six to eight weeks at Heartwood and anyone may attend free of charge. The meeting calendar is online at www.deathcafe.com. The meetings are headed by Diana Sayegh, Heartwood Preserve Cemetery manager. She’s been holding them since 2011.

There are a few simple rules for those attending: the first is that everyone “must eat cake,” Sayegh joked from behind her face mask depicting a Day of the Dead Mexican sugar skull. Another rule is that grief and grieving issues are off the table. The Café meetings, she said, should not be confused with grief support groups.

The meetings are not necessarily funeral planning seminars, either, she said. It’s more about facing the reality of death and getting comfortable with it through a pragmatic approach and open discussion where the “topic of death is not considered taboo.”

Sayegh said many people grow up and live their lives “never going there,” the topic of death avoided at all cost. She understands it’s not the most pleasant subject, but the sooner people come to grips with it the better. After meetings, Sayegh said it’s not uncommon to receive lots of gratitude from those attending, even “thank you” cards mailed later.

She’s also witnessed those attending losing tension in their bodies, a deep sigh signaling that a load has been taken off their minds.

“You can actually see their shoulders relax,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

Not surprisingly, in a year when death is in the headlines daily, more people than usual are interested in the Death Café.

“I’ve definitely seen more people concerned about it now,” said Sayegh. “There’s a lot of preplanning that we didn’t see before.”

Sayegh said she’s seen no COVID-19 deaths herself among this year’s burials at the Heartwood Preserve Cemetery, but there’s no questions people are more aware of the possibility of death that ever.”

“They can’t help it; they are seeing death on the news every day,” she said.

Heightened awareness also has led to more people reserving plots at the preserve, some even sending checks and asking Sayegh to pick out a “nice spot” for them.

The burials at Heartwood Preserve are done the old-fashioned way: no embalming and no casket. Bodies are wrapped in a crisp white bed sheet, lowered into the ground and covered with soil, the mound topped with pine needles. If desired, a simple oval plaque identifying the grave can be added. Caskets are OK, but they are simple wicker or pine boxes only. The idea as that whatever goes into the ground should be allowed to decay and become part of the rich compost that helps support life.

Sayegh said some may think a natural burial is a crude relic of the past, but she sees it differently.

“People may think it is a little barbaric, but when you think about it, it only makes sense,” she said, adding from the graves spring flowers, grass and plants, which in turn feed deer and other animals that live in the preserve. Whatever grows naturally from the burial is considered how nature intended, Sayegh said. No flowers or other plantings around graves are permitted, she added.

Another advantage to going natural is that the cost of burials is cut 50 to 60%. Many of those deciding on Heartwood are of a younger generation more in tune with nature and the environment and like the idea of a natural burial for their parents, said Sayegh. The funeral process also is greatly simplified, she said.

“There are not a lot of decisions to make when you go green or natural,” she said. “It makes things less costly, but also much simpler.”

In addition to burial of bodies, Heartwood inters ashes for those who prefer cremation. The ashes are either poured into the grave or interred inside a wicker urn.

Death may not be the most pleasant of thoughts, but it also doesn’t have to be unpleasant, said Sayegh. Avoiding facing it can cause unnecessary anxiety that, she believes, is no way to live.

“Helping people with their fears and how their death will be handled is what Death Café is about,” she said, adding death doesn’t have to be a “negative thing.”

 “I consider myself part of the death positive movement,” Sayegh said.