DWU Students Research and Discuss Mortality with "Death Café"

Dec 11, 2019

Stephanie Gabel presents her topic to a visitor during the Death Café at Dakota Wesleyan University.
Credit Jackie Hendry

Talking with loved ones about death is difficult, and some conversations about end-of-life arrangements are put off until it’s too late. But students at Dakota Wesleyan University have the chance to practice discussing mortality with loved ones and total strangers at the Death Café.  

Tabletops near the campus library’s coffee shop hold iPads, brochures and posters while students wait for curious visitors to stop. Topics range from the legalities of death to organ donation. These presentations are the final project for the class called “Death, Dying, and Life After Death.” It’s a religious studies course that examines death in Biblical terms, but it also looks to other cultural practices, the funeral industry, burial options and ways to deal with grief.

Campus pastor Denise Van Meter leads the class. For a class like this, she says there’s a better way to see what students have absorbed than a final exam.

“Because I really want to make sure the students apply what they learn, then this was the perfect way for them to take the knowledge that they’ve learned and be able to offer it to other people. So the process is really good,” says Van Meter.

Death Cafés began with an organization in England that promotes open conversations about mortality. The project—and the class itself—certainly captures attention. Senior business major Kyle Bailey says when it was time to fulfill his religious studies requirement, this class stood out. And when his grandmother died during the course of the semester, he felt better able to deal with that loss.

“We kinda talked about how to get people through the process of death and stuff like that. It was actually almost better to be in this class when that happened because I learned about that stuff,” explains Bailey.

But even students who haven’t yet experience the death of a loved one can learn how to prepare for the future. And Denise Van Meter makes a point to connect grief to experiences beyond physical death.

“It can also be the loss of a dream, it could be the loss of a job, of a marriage, if you’re an athlete, you get hurt and you can’t play, this can also apply to those kinds of deaths," she adds.

Van Meter says talking about loss and death more often can help lessen the stigma around mortality. It can also make preparing for funerals or shouldering grief a little easier.

Regional Health supports Education and Healthcare reporting on SDPB.