What It’s like to Attend a Death Cafe

The website says it best: ‘At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death.’ Not to discuss the weather, or your latest celebrity crush, but something much more dramatic and important that affects us all. You know, the big impending sense of doom that we Brits are generally too polite to talk about.

Death Cafe is a unique not-for-profit franchise, spearheaded by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz in 2004, pops up all over the world. The UK-led website (inspired by Crettaz and run by Jon Underwood) lists 1325 previous meetings, which have been held everywhere from San Diego to Stratford-Upon-Avon, and from Brisbane to Beijing; it’s hoped a permanent cafe can be established in London soon.

Liquor advert by Prieto Vargas with Vanitas theme.
This Spanish optical illusion print ( one of many ‘All is Vanity’ designs) seemed appropriate for a Death Cafe visual. See the drinkers on the left… then look at the bigger picture on the right. Credit: Elrastromadrid.com.

I’d been looking to test out the experience for a while now, and yesterday I finally got the chance as the phenomenon rolled into Brighton for its inaugural event. Before setting off, I prepared myself by reading up on the general rules for organisers and attendees – it’s not bereavement counselling, it’s not geared towards a fierce debate, it doesn’t have any guest speakers, but it does involve cake – so I knew roughly what to expect.

Having previously travelled to London for a seminar on attitudes to death and what happens to the social media accounts of the deceased, I knew I’d be able to tackle the potentially tricky subject matter, but one of the key points emphasised by Jon Underwood is that there’s no set agenda with these events and the discussion should be led naturally by participants. In other words, you can’t really prepare for what’s going to come up in conversation.

Coffee house table with cups and tea strainer
Thorny issues are always discussed better over drinks.

The setting was the Redwood Coffee House, a small cafe perched on the edge of the Laines (an independent shopping area in Brighton), and it was organised by celebrant River Jones and funeral director Emily Lovick. I was particularly curious as I’ve never spoken to anyone in either of those professions. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only curious one – about 20 people turned up and the venue was pretty full.

River and Emily began by asking everyone in the room to write down a death-related issue they’d like to discuss, then the suggestions were put into a hat and dished out amongst us to spark conversation. We sat in small groups and quickly broke the ice by reading out what we’d picked from the hat as we sipped on coffee (I chose a Guatemalan filter coffee – gorgeous) and nibbled on cake. My group drew out the rather ominous ‘Preparing yourself for death’ and set to work.

Coffee shop and venue near the Laines in Brighton
Brighton’s Rosewood Cafe, on Trafalgar Street, was cosy and welcoming.

What struck me was how quickly we found ourselves talking about the practicalities, rather than the emotions, connected with dying; we had to consciously make an effort to mention the psychological impact of impending loss, because we easily got caught up in discussing the everyday hassles and paperwork involved. How do you sort out your estate and your will? Why are so many people not yet registered as organ donors? What’s it like for the people left behind to sift through your possessions?

Interestingly, one of the women in my group knew someone who worked for a house clearance company, and she told us stories about relatives turning up to grab valuable possessions, prepared to fight ruthlessly over them. As a group we concluded that many of the things we hold onto for sentimental value won’t be of interest to anyone once we’re gone, so maybe we need to sort through all the detritus and take stock of what we really need around us (as well as being sure to dispose of any embarrassing photos/clothing/memorabilia we’ve accumulated over the years). Ultimately we realised that you don’t prepare yourself for dying as much as you prepare for the impact on the people you leave behind.

Retro watch inner workings in gold frame
All those things you collect? They might end up at an antiques fair like this. Or a junk shop. Either way, I’ll probably buy them and hoard them myself, as a clutter addict.

We also discussed the ‘bucket list’ trend and how it plays into the pressure to experience anything and everything before your time is up. Being someone with big ambitions, I’m constantly adding more items to my travel bucket list (seeing art in New Zealand! Exploring the ghats of Varanasi, India! Driving Route 66 in the US!). As I explained to the group, this puts me in complete contrast to my dad, who happily admits there aren’t many places he has a burning desire to see. People have different regrets and different priorities, but this certainly isn’t recognised in the identikit ‘Things to do before you die’ lists perpetuated by the media.

Chatting to Emily, it also dawned on me that I had no idea how much a funeral costs. She estimated £3,500-4000 on average, but said that many people take out payment plans (typically when they’re aged 40 or above) to spread the cost. I’m fairly certain that anyone of my generation would only be looking to save that kind of money for a gap year or to help fund a deposit on a house.

Funerary stone art in Cuban cemetery
Some of the carvings in the vast Colon Cemetery, Havana.

The last part of the event saw a spokesperson from each group sharing what had been discussed. An 80-year-old man referred to the cultural divides that affect how we talk about dying, or indeed how we avoid the subject altogether; others mentioned the importance of living well and caring for people in their final years, and one man push for a re-appropriation of the word ‘death’ and an end to the state of denial that many of us exist in.

Whilst this all sounds like a morbid and morose evening, it was actually very upbeat. I’m not surprised Bernard Crettaz’s idea has caught on in so many locations, because once you start talking about these issues you realise how much society sweeps the issue of mortality under the carpet. The sooner we start being honest and open, the better.

2 thoughts on “What It’s like to Attend a Death Cafe”

  1. This actually sounds really interesting! Death is one of those conversation topics that people steer clear of, so it’s nice to know that there’s a forum for people to discuss these issues — and like you said, in some of the more practical ways rather than the emotional ones.

    It’s weird how death is viewed so differently from culture to culture — or cool, anyway. In the USA, I think we have such a fear of dying and what death means, but in other places, it’s a natural part of life. But I think talking about it can be a good thing and like you said, it can help people prepare… in the sense that, death really seems to impact the living so much… it’s kind of more about them and making sure the ones left behind are okay. That’s what I’ve always thought about funerals — they really are for the living more than anything.
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    1. I totally agree that funerals are more for the living than the dead, Erika. And going to the Death Cafe made me realise how much we are affected by death but how much we conceal from each other about it!

      As with the USA, here in Britain we are all quite scared of talking about it or really stopping to think about it, so we just change the subject a lot instead… but hopefully things will improve with events like this taking place around the world.

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