Try this! Devour your fear of dying at a Death Cafe

This week’s spotlight: all things death.

Death Cafe is not the title of a new heavy metal LP, nor is it the name of a restaurant where skeletons are served. (Well, maybe it is, but that’s not what we’re writing about today!)

Death Cafe is an idea, a movement, and a series of meetings where, according to its hub website, “people—often strangers—drink tea, eat cake, and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

Jon Underwood of London got the idea when he read a 2010 newspaper article that mentioned Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz, who started hosting the first “cafe mortals” in Switzerland in 2004.

He’d already been at work on a series of projects about death, and decided to try organizing his own “death cafe” with the help of his mother, Sue Barsky Reid. It was a great success. The mother-and-son team began hosting more events and in 2012 published the guide “Holding Your Own Death Cafe“, which quickly spread around the world.

To date, over 3,000 participants have discussed end-of-life issues at 396 Death Cafes in Europe, North America, and Australasia.

shutterstock_67333165

Death Cafes help participants explore all the faces of this universal event.
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

How it works

The meetings are run on a purely voluntary basis, with each led by different facilitators and attended by groups of different sizes. Most meetings begin with a facilitator sharing what led them to the group and asking others to share their reasons.

The group might then split into smaller chunks to answer more conversation-starting questions like: What do you want your funeral to be like? Is there such a thing as living too long? What do you most want to accomplish before you die?

And there are a few ground rules that hold the concept together:

  • No one should try to lead participants to any particular conclusion, product, or course of action.
  • Death Cafe should not be treated as a bereavement support or grief counseling setting.
  • The meetings should happen “alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food—and cake!”

As for what the experience is like, a few Death Cafe leaders and participants sound off:

  • “There was a sense of something profound being shared. A woman living with a life limiting illness who was quite ill but looked very well said, quite firmly and calmly, in response to one comment: ‘I am not JUST going to die! I am going to DIE!’ For her, dying was not a far off theory. It was much closer to home.”  —Josefine, London, UK
  • “Our last Death Cafe was wonderful. We even had a couple who didn’t plan to attend but joined us anyway. The man remained standing the whole time because he ‘wasn’t really interested in the topic’ but he ended up talking the most!”  —Merilynne, Ann Arbor, MI
  • “We often end up with a group interested in discussing more practical things like funeral planning or completing advance directive forms, while other table participants might be dialoguing about the spiritual aspects of death. Every month brings new people and new topics of conversation. There are small cards scattered about on tables and face down just in case the attendees need a question to boost their conversation. Did I mention we had not one, but two cakes?”  —Jo, Austin, TX

Is this piquing your interest? Look for an upcoming cafe taking place near you.

Also, it doesn’t take much to try hosting your own event. DeathCafe.com offers information, instructions, and support for new facilitators, and hosts a a “Death Conversation” section where participants can share experiences and info.

Sue and Jon claim “organising a Death Cafe is enjoyable, easy and life-enhancing.” Who knew death could have such an upside?

Have you hosted or attended a Death Cafe? Did the experience help you deal with your fears?

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Comments (3)


  1. Josefine Speyer writes:
    December 3, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Hi there! I am chuffed! I only just published my Death Cafe writeup on the website (at Cafe Rouge in Hampstead) and you have read it and picked up a little quote from it!

    I am glad you like Death Cafe and you promote Death Cafe here, spreading the word. Talking about death is really talking about life. It is an important part of life we do not talk about much, generally speaking.

    Josefine Speyer


  2. DHANI SCHIMIZZI writes:
    December 28, 2013 at 12:10 am

    I wasn’t only attracted to the title “DEATH CAFE”, but also to the foto of SKULLS,
    thinking this has something to do with the traditional, indigenous-rooted “DAY of the DEAD ” festivities celebrated annually throughout Mexico & other parts of South America.

    Tiny skulls, similar to those pictured, are made of sugar or chocolate, with
    names of children written on it. Here in Mexico (I’m a gringo who’s been enjoying a 30 year “layover” in a SLEEPY village not far from all the noise & glitter of the Mexican Riviera!) they teach their children NOT to fear death, but to celebrate & even MOCK it, death seen as an illusion, while SPIRITS of their deceased loved ones are REAL as they descend once a year to partake of chicken mole enchiladas, a piece of Day of the Dead bread with skull & bones baked across it or a sip of tequila placed on the graves as offerings. There’s often live Mariachi music till the wee hours of the morning -certainly a healthier cultural way of looking at death compared to the States.

    But I have my own “take” on death as a cancer survivor who faced it seven years ago. I’m currently cancer-free for the last 5 years thanks to: family love & support, love from friends & strangers, good Govt. health care program (I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t fall thru a net!), good & caring doctors & nurses -Rochester General CANCER CENTER, Y-e-a-h!- & in my case a strong BOND with God.

    You’ve often heard & scratched your head when a cancer survivor says his encounter was “the best thing that ever happened to me!”, but that is the case to those who are awake to what has just “happened” to them.

    What happens at the moment you are diagnosed with something like cancer (I cried for MYSELF the first 2 minutes & then I lifted up my head, stopped dead in my tracks & said “WHOA! self-pity’s not going to get me anywhere!”)… what happens is all the things in LIFE you had put so much VALUE into, now those “things”, those places & situations all slide to the wayside: what’s left is “FAMILY” (this could be a friend sleeping in a cardboard shelter next to yours in L.A., but I was blessed to have a large supportive family waiting for me back home.), good doctors & modern
    treatment, but most importantly your MIND-SET & what you believe in.

    In my case I had delved into a lot of NEW AGE literature before cancer (Jiddu Krishnamurti, Deepak Chopra, Shirley Maclaine, Erich Tolle, “A Course In Miracles”, Marianne Williamson, plus ancient spiritual texts from the Holy Bible to the Taoist I CHING, & all those bits & remembered pieces , PEARLS really, of wisdom helped me formulate what is now an unpublished essay titled “Four Keys to Self-Healing Through the Power of Forgiveness” and they are:

    (1) GRATITUDE as the fastest form of healing.
    (2) ACCEPTANCE of what IS. What you resist, PERSISTS. (I teach a radical approach: Do NOT FIGHT your cancer -or whatever AILS you- rather EMBRACE it, then kiss it good night! It’s the first step to acceptance. In the morning say: “I’m letting go & LETTING GOD.”
    (3) FREEDOM from FEAR & GUILT They go hand & hand, by the way & you can easily release yourself from them if you follow the first two keys: Ask yourself: If you are GRATEFUL for all that’s happening around you (including what you judge “bad”, like cancer!) & if you ACCEPT what’s all around you, what would you FEAR or be feel guilty about? Nothing!
    and finally
    (4) FORGIVENESS, the foundation for the above three keys. Forgiving ONESELF & forgiving the “Other”.

    http://www.smithmag.net “DHANI” and http://www.twitter.com/SpaghettiKing


  3. lizzy miles writes:
    January 17, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    An authentic Death Cafe doesn’t task participants with answering conversation starters. People have enough on their minds when they walk in the door. Simply, “what brought you here?” is enough to sustain conversation. It really is magical.


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