Devoted Volunteers Power San Diego Death Cafe

Frank and “Mits” (Stefano and Tomita, respectively) float in front of screens of deep blue Pacific Ocean waters on Zoom where they’ve adapted their San Diego Death Cafes since COVID hit last March.

Soon little “Brady Bunch” squares appear with six women of all ages, a nurse, a funeral director and a college student among them. Some are regulars, others are new. All are drawn to the cafe to have a safe space to talk about the end.

According to the Death Cafe website, “At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death.”

Today’s conversation ranges from medical aid in dying (MAID) to what music you might want to hear at the end of life and the importance of writing down your wishes, including an Advanced Directive or POLST Form.

Tomita takes a small scrap of paper out of his wallet, placed behind his drivers license, and reads out his simple instructions for medical care in case he’s injured or ill and cannot communicate his wishes. Both leaders emphasize the importance of putting your wishes on paper.

The two retirees came together about a year before the pandemic, toting pastries and coffee to a local San Diego library once a month to get people comfortable with talking about death. They come from opposite coasts, but share a mutual love of classical music and of normalizing the conversation about death and dying.

There’s no coffee or sweets with the online version, now three times a month, but plenty of energy that’s never waned thanks to these two devoted volunteers.

Mitsuo Tomita, 73, retired 13 years ago from his job as a family physician for more than 30 years. Tomita has a ready smile and plenty of energy for many social and political committees and a number of other groups he’s launched including a death book club (the Bare Bones Book Club) and the San Diego Death Talk Meetup group.

Tomita says as a physician, talking and training about death didn’t really happen. He half-jokes that in health care, no one wants to deal with dying, so patients are pushed onto the next person on the next shift.

Frank Stefano, 90, was a commander in the U.S. Navy, later running a tax business for 25 years in Brooklyn Heights, New York, and eventually San Diego. Frank has joined other death cafes to chat in England, New England, Canada and other places all around the globe. He has no medical training, but says for the past 20 years, he’s been comfortable talking about death. He attributes that to conversations with his mother which began about a year before she died. In his travels, Stefano met the founder of the movement, the late Jon Underwood, who died at 44.

By using Zoom, the San Diego Death Cafe has opened its doors to a bigger geographic audience. They recently have had guests from Singapore and Australia.

Both men say people leave their death cafes energized.

The death cafe movement began in England and the first cafe was held in 2011. The goal of the group is to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

Stefano says he expects to live another two years and then hopes to enter hospice at the end since he has no family to care for him. He volunteered for a hospice program in San Diego for about 12 years, so he’s familiar with the compassionate care they provide. Unlike most Americans, he has done all his planning. “I’m a Virgo,” he explains.

For his part, Tomita has plenty of time and energy for his many end-of-life groups and conversations. He explains with one wife and no kids and without the strain of the hard work of being a physician, “this is so much easier than my (former) day job.”

You can find a Death Cafe near you by putting in your city or ZIP code in the group’s website.

Photo by Frank McKenna

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