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The Death Cafe: A medium latte and a chat about dying

In early 2011, Jon Underwood decided to develop a series of projects about death – one of which was to focus on talking about death. Jon read about the work of Bernard Crettaz, the pioneer of Cafes Mortéls which were themselves inspired by the cafes and coffeehouses of the European Enlightenment. Motivated by Bernard’s work, Jon immediately decided to use a similar model for his own project, and Death Cafe was born.

The first Death Cafe in the United Kingdom was offered in Jon’s house in Hackney, East London in September 2011. It was facilitated by psychotherapist Susan Barsky Reid: Jon’s mother. Death Cafes have since spread across Europe, North America, and Australasia, and as of today, 5,583 Death Cafes have taken place in 52 countries. It is clear that there are people who are not only keen to talk about death, but are passionate enough to organise their own Death Cafe.

So what happens at a Death Cafe?

Well, to quote the organisation themselves, ‘at a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea, and discuss death’. It’s as simple as that. The Death Cafe model does not have a set itinerary; meetings are group-directed conversations about death with no agenda, objectives, or themes. They are a discussion group rather than a grief support or counselling session, allowing people from all walks of life to share their ideas about death and dying.

To begin, the Death Cafe facilitator asks the group to introduce themselves and say why they have decided to come. This gives an opportunity for people to say and introduce any topics surrounding death and dying for later in the conversation, although people are not pressured to speak if they do not wish to. If the facilitator is taking part in the group, they take a turn to speak too. This part of the Death Cafe can take some time – often up to an hour in groups of ten or more! Next, the facilitator asks if anything came up for the group whilst people were speaking – thoughts, questions, or reflections. This leads on to a more general discussion, which often tends to last for the rest of the session. Directed questions are kept to a minimum in order for the sessions to be steered by participants as much as possible.

The motto of the Death Cafe is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’. Whilst the notion of having a chat about death may seem incredibly morbid to some, death is a part of life as much as a baby being born, or a couple getting married. The existence of the Death Cafe, and the subsequent familiarity with death that it provides, allows those who experience it to fulfill the organisation’s motto entirely. The movement is a strong one, (people complete blogs and session write-ups so as to spread the word and keep people informed), a widespread one (to repeat – 52 countries!), and one for which there was clearly a need. The success of the Death Cafe demonstrates the dearth of discussions around death and dying, and Jon Underwood played a crucial role in changing that.

Sadly, Jon Underwood died suddenly on 27 June 2017 after collapsing on 25 June 2017 from acute promyelocytic leukaemia. His wife, Donna Molloy, wrote in the announcement of his death that

‘Through his life he helped tens of thousands of people all over the world to regularly come together, drink tea, eat delicious cake, and take time out to remember what really matters. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say he has single-handedly started to change cultures around death and end of life awareness, not just in the UK, but across the globe’. 

Death Cafes are a big step towards the taboos surrounding discussion around death and dying being eradicated, and the efforts of individuals including Jon Underwood are responsible for that. The Death Cafe movement remains as strong as ever, and, as per Jon’s request, continues to be run by Jon’s sister, Jools Barsky, and his mother, Susan Barsky Reid.

See below for a selection of images kindly shared with us from Death Cafes all over the world.

Featured image credit: ‘Coffee Art Halloween Coffee Takeaway’ by Mimzy. CC0 Creative Commons via Pixabay.

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