What is a Death Cafe?

What is a Death Cafe?

At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. The movement was started by Jon Underwood in Hackney, London, UK in 2011 and since then nearly 18,000 have been held across the globe. 

In this piece we look at
•    How does a Death Café work
•    Benefits of a Death Cafe
•    Why were they started

How does a Death Cafe work?

A Death Cafe is a group directed discussion of death with no agenda, specific objectives or themes. What is shared is always totally confidential and it is not a grief support or counselling session. Anyone can run one and everyone is welcome.

Every Death café is unique, but as an example these are some of the themes explored recently. Stories of the deaths of friends and family and the challenges are aired – the arguments with siblings over where their mother should be buried when she died suddenly and how much easier it would have been if she had left a record of her wishes. Different traditions from varied belief systems are explored; one woman shared how her Muslim father had told her mother that he wanted to be cremated but when he died unexpectedly one of her five siblings did not believe this and insisted on a burial. This disagreement led to estrangement of the mother and not only her daughter but her grandchildren and could have been avoided entirely if the wishes had been recorded. Often lack of planning or communication leaves scars which take decades to heal.  

The challenge of death cleaning (as it is called in Sweden) is often discussed especially dealing with items that are precious to one person but possibly not to their heirs. How to deal with this? Some people enjoy taking time to sort through their parents’ ‘stuff’ whilst others consider this a serious burden. The contemporary challenge of ensuring families and friends could access relevant digital data and photos is often a topic with most Death Café participants confessing they personally had done little if anything to share passwords.

Benefits of a Death Cafe

People bring their own hopes and fears to these events and leave feeling a burden has been lifted from their shoulders. They share questions about end of life care, positive and negative experiences of deaths of family and friends, challenges of dealing with the fallout whilst grieving, questions around legacy in its broadest sense and what beliefs or cultural values influence their perspectives on end-of-life decisions. The old saying of a problem shared being a problem halved rings true. 

It may be a surprise to learn that the atmosphere is often upbeat and certainly not morbid; asked to choose a word to describe the experience, participants mentioned: calm, safe lovely, relaxed, meaningful, fun, uplifting, pleasure of life, warm, friendly, open, Interesting, informative, beautiful experience, and Inspiring.

As the French philosopher Montaigne summed it up:
“All the wisdom and argument in the world eventually comes down to one conclusion: which is to teach us not to be afraid of dying.”
"Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose" — Steve Jobs 

Why were they started?

The idea was based on the continental European tradition of meeting in a public place to talk about important and interesting subjects. There's a café philo, which is a philosophical cafe, and a café scientifique. And this is a café mortel, or death cafe.

The idea is 'to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives'. Poignantly and shockingly, Jon died suddenly in June 2017 aged 44 after collapsing suddenly with leukaemia two days beforehand. This sadly demonstrated the fact that none of us can know when we will die and so normalising talking and thinking about can only be a good thing. We talk about and plan for other key life moments like birth or weddings but there is still much taboo in our society in talking about death and dying.


Here are some more resources:

Guide to holding a death café
Finding a Death Café near you