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Café Mortel

NYC OpenIDEO chapter organized a café mortel: a story telling event where people could share their stories of end-of-life

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On May 18, NYC OpenIDEO Chapter organized a storytelling event at NYU Greenhouse space. We chose to use the model of the Death Cafe as an inspiration to structure the storytelling event.

The idea of a Café Mortel (or "Death Café") comes from the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz.  Jon Underwood in the UK ran with the idea in November 2010. Today, Death Cafés are held in over 29 countries. Death Café New York City adopts the "salon" model: free-flowing conversation around the topic of death from-any-angle. 

For the first part of our event, we invited Karla Rothstein from Death Lab at Columbia.

Then we split in 4 groups to share stories about death and end-of-life.

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Here are some of the main insights that emerge from the group conversations:

  • Rituals: artifacts and roles to support these rituals

The issue of space and ‘memorials’ was discussed at length in several groups: without memorializing and mourning a death, one cannot move forward and get past it. So whatever form (other than burial) could be taken into consideration?

A group talked about visiting places linked to death when travelling, examples: cemeteries, concentration camps and memorials (e.g, 9/11 Memorial). We discussed how we felt and the impact it caused to each person. We also talked about how people who live around these places have to learn to deal with it every day.

For example, looking at Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial: the engraving of the names on the wall says a lot: as in it officially commemorates the deaths, and shows the immensity in the amount of deaths.

These points all came back to people’s fear of ‘Oblivion’; being forgotten, not commemorated, looking at the processes of anthropology and cultural. People make their mark and tell their stories so other later can find them. It was also connected to the importance of the Ethos in respecting the dead: Not undervaluing and disregarding but giving importance and value.

A group also discussed the notion of a passage and the importance of rituals and people who can facilitate these rituals. They referred to the two posts on Death Doulas on OpenIDEO.

  • Cultural differences:

One person from India lost her mother 10 years ago. She compared rituals in India and those in the US. She felt that in India, there was little said about the person (like in the US for example) and no grave, “place to visit” (because of cremation practices).

This led us to a discussion about cultural differences as well as personal differences: some people would prefer being cremated because they don’t see the point in “visiting a tomb”.

Indeed one of her group member contrasted her experience with the story of her grandmother, who moved away and can’t “visit” her husband’s tomb and thus pay someone to maintain it.

In another group, participants discussed how after funerals, burials, spreading ashes, was Shiva, a Jewish tradition of grieving where for 7 days friends and family will visit the family of the departed with food to check in on them. Though this is a period of mourning the contributor explained this is often a happy time as it is a family gathering and really the 8th day (when everyone leaves) is the hardest

  • Emotional aspects of death varies depending on personalities and personal histories.

For example, one participant explained that although she experienced death in different situations, she considered she only understood it when she was faced with a rare disease. She also mentioned she remembered when she received the news and she felt completely lost.

Another participant mentioned that death has always be present in his life since he and his family are refugees from a war zone area. He said that he had to learn how to live with death. Another point he mentioned is that everytime the phone ranged late night, they assumed something bad had happened.

  • When does end-of-life start?

When does “end-of-life” starts? This was started in light of the Death Lab’s presentation which focused on the “post-death” experience. One participant also mentioned a post on OpenIDEO on when you’re 40. The question was: when does end-of-life start?

  • When you’re 40? 60? 70? Or later?
  • When the doctor said you are in terminal phase of cancer?
  • When you have to go to a medicalized home?

This also led to issues of conversations in families. One of us said that when he was a teenager, his parents took him to the church and showed him the wall they bought to put the ashes of all the family. He thought it was weird at the time, but he also realized that his parents helped him to. One of us agreed that it was important, albeit not always easy, to be able to have these conversations.

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What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

How might we redesign end of life experiences in a way that support the diversity in needs (personal& cultural)?
How can we redesign the end-of-life system in hospitals & hospices so that rituals can be enacted and facilitated?
How might we ‘say goodbye to’/’lay to rest’ a loved one in a way that is emotionally sufficient and culturally dignified without large environmental or economic costs?

If you participated in an End of Life Storytelling Event, tell us which Chapter or city you came from:

NYC OpenIDEO Chapter


Join the conversation:

Photo of Bettina

Hi NYC OpenIDEO Chapter and Anne-Laure Fayard .  Great summary post from the meet up.  Thanks to whomever wrote it!

By chance I met an artist last weekend who is the creator of the Hart Island Project.  Hart Island was mentioned briefly by the guest speaker when speaking about cemetery space in NYC.  It is NYC's "Potter's Field."   Melinda Hunt, artist, has been working on this project since 1991.  She aims to "give voice to the legions buried there..... and to make the invisible, visible."  She proposes that this cemetery become a park for the public to access.   Currently the island is closed to the public.

The mission of the project:  To provide visibility and access to NYC's public cemetery including current burial records and maps obtained through the NY State Freedom of Info Law.  The project maintains a database of public burial records from 1980 - present.  They are the basis for a storytelling and visualization called the Traveling Cloud Museum, in an attempt to preserve the histories of who is buried for present and future generations.

Here are some links to learn more.  
1)   Some of the artist's images appear with this article -
3)  Project Website  -

I think her work fits into the discussions from that night in different ways.  What do you think?

Also her creation of a Digital Traveling Cloud Museum is very interesting especially in light of the information presented by Karla Rothstein (Columbia School of Architecture, Death Lab) about limited space for burials in many cities in the world, and the effects on climate change that are secondary to current burial practices including cremation.   Whatever the future holds in terms of how society will choose to handle bodies after death can digital cloud museums become part of a new process to memorialize loved ones?

Photo of Anne-Laure

Thanks Bettina Fliegel Glad you liked the summary :-)
We also posted a summary of the Death Lab talk:
Thank you for sharing Melissa Hunt's work. I had promised myself to check Hart Island but have still not done it so it was great reading the article and checking the website.
Her work clearly resonates with some of the issues discussed by Karla. 
Melissa Hunt's work is also highlighting issues of memory.
I'm also wondering how Melissa's work cannot be an inspiration to think beyond cases of unreclaimed bodies. 
Hopefully you can join us Monday for our ideation session. 

Photo of Bettina

Hi NYC OpenIDEO Chapter - Check this out.   It is fantastic and relevant to the Meet Up's discussions.!comments-section

Anne-Laure Fayard   Thanks for sharing the other post.  It is great! 
(Not sure yet about Monday's Meet Up. Will rsvp when I know. Thanks for the reminder!)