BAYFIELD – On one side of a door at Pine River Library, visitors quietly returned books or typed away at computer keyboards in the brightly lit library.
On the other side, 12 people sat in a circle in a dimly lit room to talk about one thing: death.
Residents in the Bayfield area forged new connections Thursday during the year’s last Death Cafe, an international program to encourage discussions around death in a judgment-free zone. The participants’ discussion focused on the afterlife at the final meeting, even as the facilitator, Robert “Han” Bishop, considered changing the program’s own “life” after November by leading fewer sessions in 2020.
“Death Cafe is very much a part of the consideration of your inevitable passage into the great unknown,” Bishop said. “It’s for anyone who, for whatever reason, would like to have a place where they can sit and talk to others about their feelings about death.”
The meeting follows an established format, which began in England in 2011 and has been used in 66 countries. At each meeting, snacks, coffee and tea give the gathering a friendly atmosphere. The facilitator always emphasizes that the group isn’t about therapy, politics or religion. It’s not a place for pushing personal beliefs or judging others.
It is, however, a place for people of all ages to discuss a subject that most choose to avoid.
“The reason I started coming to them was a desire to have more connection with like-minded spirits,” said Rebecca Koepper, a regular attendee. “Everybody has something really interesting to say, and it’s been really enriching.”
The residents, all over 40, listened respectfully and sipped coffee at Thursday’s meeting while they mulled the eternal questions: What happens after you die? How much do your beliefs about the afterlife impact the way you live?
The meeting format guarantees confidentiality to its attendees. Some spoke from religious, spiritual or scientific perspectives. Others shared past experiences that influenced their beliefs about the afterlife.
“I don’t think anything happens after I die,” one woman said. “Because I fear the way I’m going to die, I’m going to pretend that there is reincarnation.”
Another woman said she finds peace by believing in the afterlife, because she’ll be reunited with everyone who has already passed away.
As a child, a man said he was terrified that his actions might send him to heaven or hell. The idea that there is nothing after death “is the most peaceful end of life that I can imagine,” he said.
They wondered what happens in heaven: Does too much of a good thing eventually become a kind of hell?
“My life now is so doing-oriented,” one woman said. “What do you do in heaven?”
The conversation covered a range of topics, such as preparing for death, near-death experiences and the passing of pets. Each Death Cafe is a totally unique experience because the discussion changes based on the attendees’ interests, Bishop said.
“Your sense of death and what comes after, I think, has a profound impact on how you live your life,” he said.
Bishop is willing to lead future meetings, but he might hold them less frequently because of occasional low attendance. Many attendees said they appreciated the regular meetings and hoped they would continue.
“We’re living in a time of so much separation,” Koepper said. “To have an opportunity to meet regularly with people who are facing the same issues of aging that I’m facing – I felt like it would be reaffirming, and it most definitely has been.”