- Associated Press - Monday, January 23, 2017

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) - There was a time when Hazel Green resident Shelia Champion couldn’t go to funerals or talk about death because she was afraid.

Today, she owns a green burial ground on a small plot of land near the Alabama-Tennessee state line. She is also an advocate for end-of-life options, a topic most people feel uncomfortable discussing.

Champion, a former contracts manager in Huntsville, wants to change that.

She will host a unique event next month for the Rocket City: a death cafe to increase “awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” The Feb. 1 pop up event will kick off at 5:30 p.m. at West End Grill on 6610 Old Madison Pike N.W.

“I am constantly amazed about how little people know about death,” Champion told AL.com. “What are the laws? What is the purpose of embalming and don’t I have to have it? What happens to my body after death? … Part of my passion is to teach people what I know and to make death a part of life.”

Champion said the death cafe will be only the second gathering of its kind in Huntsville. In the meantime, we caught up with Champion to talk about why residents should attend the event.

You’ve recently started building a new career to bring more awareness to the death and burial process, which many Americans have lost touch with as funeral homes have assumed care for the dead. Why is this work so important to you?

Having reached the age of 50 with a phobia and fascination about death, I’m so amazed at the transformation in my life that death has brought. I’ve gone from phobia to passion and hope maybe by sharing my story I can help some others learn what I have. The one thing we all have in common is death. Talking about it will not make it happen any faster nor will it prolong your life, but it might make things easier to deal with.

Since becoming an advocate for home funerals and green burials, what stigmas about death have you encountered?

Many people believe or would have you believe that funerals need to be handled by “professionals,” which is absurd unless you want embalming and is promulgated by the funeral industry. I do believe that in some instances - traumatic injuries, etc. - it is better to use a funeral home. I hope to bring to people the belief and knowledge that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a touching, heartfelt, loving, respectful funeral, evidenced by my first burial which is documented on my website.

Similar death cafes in the U.S. have “opened the closet” so to speak and resulted in deeper conversations about death. What subjects are on and off the table for discussion?

There is no subject off the table. This is not, however, a venue for those working in the death, hospice, grief industry, etc. to come to discuss their businesses. It is neither a presentation nor an infomercial for The Good Earth, LLC. We will discuss whatever the attendees want to. Should the gathering get too large, we might even break out into groups by subject matter. I don’t expect this first death cafe to get that large and would appreciate everyone wanting to attend to contact me.

What do you hope people take away from this event?

Knowledge. I want everyone to learn their rights and how to preserve them and to know that talking about a taboo subject can make it more acceptable.

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