WESTERVILLE, Ohio (WCMH) – Sasha Corney knew she wanted to care for the dying when her late husband’s song choice for his funeral – “Heroes” – was flat-out rejected by her parents-in-law.
“‘Absolutely not, David Bowie is the devil,’” the 39-year-old Westgate resident recalled her devout Baptist in-laws saying. “He wasn’t honored, and that crushed me. And because he wasn’t honored, that made my grieving harder.”
The rebuff of one of her husband’s final will-documented wishes was pivotal in Corney’s desire to become a death doula to guide dying people and their families through the end-of-life and grieving processes, she said.
Corney is hardly alone in her penchant for caring for the dying and embracing the inevitable fact that everyone will die; doing so allows her to live a fuller life, she said. That’s why she joined nearly 20 central Ohioans at the Westerville Public Library at an aptly named Death Cafe on Jan. 15.
Strangers believing in different gods and spiritualities gathered together to indulge in the Death Cafe’s simple and straightforward menu: Coffee, cake and conversations about death, according to Carissa Bendure, one of the cafe’s co-hosts.
“Every time I go to a Death Cafe, whether I’m hosting or attending, the subject is death, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had a two-hour conversation about life,” Bendure, 38, of Gahanna, said.
One of the first Death Cafes in the area since the pandemic paused the end-of-life discussions, Bendure said the concept was brought to the U.S. by Lizzy Miles, who hosted the country’s first Death Cafe in Westerville in 2012.
The idea is to temper people’s fears about the taboo topic that is death, Bendure said. Attendees have ranged from young adults to 82-year-old women, and Bendure even recalled an elderly Michigan man – whose relatives remained tight-lipped about the topic – making the trek to Ohio to participate.
“He crossed state lines to come to this Death Cafe so he could meet people and have a discussion about it,” Bendure said. “Topics about like, What do you believe in? What do you think is going to happen to you after you die? How would you like to be buried, or what kind of affairs do you want to get in order?”
Whether it’s taking the more traditional route of being buried in a casket or a Death Cafe attendee’s dream to be cremated and shot into the sky via fireworks, Corney said she has been pre-planning her own funeral since she was 12.
Growing up in a region of West Virginia where opioid overdose deaths were common, Corney said she witnessed her first traumatic death at the age of 5. She lost her mother to the same fate more than 20 years later, she said.
“When you witness someone that has died a traumatic death and they didn’t have any plans, the grieving process almost immediately halts, and you just go into this shock mode where you have to plan everything,” she said. “To have it all planned before it happens, you get to breathe properly. And it’s an act of love, planning this and working with someone to plan it.”
Inspired to become a licensed embalmer after catching an Uber ride with a mortuary school teacher, Death Cafe co-host Emily Anderson, of German Village, said her role as an apprentice at a funeral home has pushed her to reevaluate her own life path.
“Being around death as much as I am, it makes you realize how suddenly things can happen and makes you more thoughtful about how you live your life and the experiences that you’re seeking out,” the 31-year-old said.
With future Death Cafes on the horizon, Corney said – while flashing a David Bowie “Heroes” tattoo on her forearm – said she hopes she can achieve her dream of becoming a doula to ensure other families can properly honor and put their loved ones to rest.
“It’s shown me to love everybody because, in the end, we are all going to die,” she said.