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Students Take Time to Stop at the Death Café

Logo for Sigma Phi Sigma, the mortuary science and funeral service fraternity

The pandemic of Covid-19. The uptick in mass shootings for the last decade. The rise of suicides throughout the country. All of this has culminated in a society surrounded by death.

“Especially for this generation, I think death is a topic that is being brought up more and more against our will” Tiffany Turner, a mortuary science student at SIU, said.

This rise in exposure to death for younger generations has sparked a need for them to figure out what death means to them. A fraternity at SIU has chosen to provide this. Sigma Phi Sigma is a mortuary science fraternity that has been hosting Death Cafes for a few years to provide students with the chance to have an open conversation about death. Some students are interested in death because they see it in the news more often, while others have more personal reasons.

“My mom passed a few weeks before the start of my junior year. We didn’t really have a great relationship and I didn’t want to be with her before but I put my feelings to the side because death is a really important thing and deserves to have some attention” J Wright, a freshman at SIU, said.

People show up for various reasons but all are welcome to express themselves. Wright says these events offer a safe space for people to discuss difficult topics.

“I feel like a lot of times people are really scared to talk about death on their own. So to be surrounded by a group of people that are also interested in those things, you would be more comfortable giving your side of your own story” Wright said.

Some of the conversations revolve around the afterlife, fear of death, and what people want at their funerals. While many of these topics can seem uncomfortable, Whitney Carpenter, a sophomore at SIU, says the conversations usually flow in a natural and open way.

“The conversation easily flows and everyone just goes back and forth. Everybody is so open about telling their different opinions and asking questions” Carpenter said.

Many different perspectives come to these events. Some who major in mortuary science and some who major in aviation. Some who have experienced personal death and some who have barely thought about it. Turner says death means so many things to everyone who shows up.

“It means something different to everybody else. Tonight we talked about how there could be a life after death and all of our loved ones who have passed are there which brings people comfort. Maybe there is nothing after death. That scares me but it could comfort someone else” Turner said.

Religion and the afterlife were one of the most talked about topics at the Death Cafe. For some, they mentioned how it brought comfort while others have the opposite feeling. Jordan Pierce, the president of Sigma Phi Sigma, says her religious upbringing is what drove her to worry about death at a young age.

“I grew up in a religious household. Death was not something we really talked about but we talked about people going to hell a lot. So, it was something in the back of my head because when you’re a kid you have existential dread, you know, so I hyper-focused on it” Pierce said.

Even with opposing views being expressed, the conversation stays civil and respectful. Pierce says over the years people have only grown more talkative despite opposing views.

“I think the only thing that has changed is people's willingness to talk about things. People have gotten a lot more comfortable since we started hosting Death Cafes which is exactly what we hoped would happen” Pierce said.

Making people more comfortable talking about death is only one way that the fraternity wants to make a difference. Pierce says they have helped out multiple groups in the community.

“We have worked with the Shawnee National Forest to clean up historical cemeteries that were pre-civil war freed slaves. We’ve worked with the Hispanic student council here to do a Day of the Dead celebration. We are currently working with the LGBTQ Alliance to set up queer death advocacy. There are a lot of ways death can coincide with everyday life” Pierce said.

The frat has done whatever it can to serve the community but its members still want to do more. Pierce says anybody who needs any help with something related to death should reach out.

“If anyone wants to reach out to us, I promise we don’t bite. That’s our whole job. We are civil servants and we want to help wherever we can” Pierce said.

If you want to learn more about the fraternity, click here.

Ethan Holder is a student contributor for WSIU Public Broadcasting located at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Contact WSIU Radio at 618-453-6101 or email wsiunews@wsiu.org
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