No, it’s not a cannibalistic, “pleased-to-m(eat)-you” kind of gathering, but the Death Café movement does tend to evoke similar reactions of shock and disgust among those who haven’t quite understood what it’s all about. The “about’ section of the Death Café Facebook page describes Death Cafes succinctly as “we talk about death over tea and cake.”
At its core, the Death Café is merely a group of people sipping on coffee or tea, nibbling on snacks, cake in particular, and talking about various aspects of death. Death Cafes are not traditional cafes in the permanent physical sense, but are in fact social gatherings that can be hosted by anyone at any location. Homes, actual cafes, and even cemeteries, have been the locations for various worldwide Death Cafes to date.
The modern Death Cafe was inspired by the European philosophically-driven lifestyle that entails gathering with like-minded people and philosophising about various aspects of life. These became known as discussion cafes and frequently saw academics, scientists and artists grappling in community, over warm drinks, and very likely alcoholic beverages, about the meaning of life.
Swiss sociologist, Bernard Crettaz was the first to flip this on its head and instead focus on death. In this way, people are forced to face this “taboo” topic head-on and understand the finite nature of our time on earth. By doing this, people are bound to analyse the type of life that they are living, the kind of life that they want to live, and the ideal legacy that they would like to leave behind. Crettaz so began what was known as a “Mortel Café” or Death Café.
Being inspired by Crettaz’s social projects on death, Jon Underwood of Hackney, England, decided to experiment with the idea of the Death Café. Underwood is considered the pioneer of the modern Death Café movement, and hosted his first Death Café in his own home back in September 2011. This Death Café was facilitated by Underwood’s mother who is a psychotherapist. In 2012 Underwood created the Death Café website which acts as a forum for discussions on death, and informs about how to host your own Death Café.
Since Underwood’s first Death Cafe, there have been close on 1000 Death Cafes hosted all over the world, including in the U.S.A., the U.K., Canada, and Australia. You can host your own Death Café by finding a venue, facilitator, attendants, and of course great food and drinks. The snacks and beverages are an important part of the Death Café as they soothe and relax, helping the conversation flow more comfortably. Bernard Crettaz has been quoted as saying: “Nothing marks to community of the living like sharing food and wine.”
The Death Café Conversation
A Death Café is required to have a host and a facilitator. Many facilitators like Lizzy Miles, who hosted and facilitated the first Death Café in the U.S.A, are social workers, counsellors or people who are used to dealing with uncomfortable conversations. Although this is not a must, facilitators of this nature are usually more comfortable in leading the conversation and identifying people who may need further help in dealing with death.
Usually simple questions are put to guests as ice breakers in order to get the conversation started. These resemble questions like, “Why are you here?” “Would you prefer burial or cremation?” “How would you like your funeral to be?” “Have you experienced the death of a loved one?” From here, the conversation grows a little more intense, dealing with topics such as life support, how you would deal with death in the family, how you would like to die, fear of death, afterlife, and so on.
The objective of a Death Café, according to the Death Café website, is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” This is because placing attention on death forces people to accept the vulnerability of humankind. Death is inevitable. In our modern society, death is often ignored and pushed aside. Somehow modern man sees himself as invincible. This view is dangerous because it inhibits deep introspection. Even practical matters like funeral plans and the drawing up of your will, assist you in accepting death and working to improve your legacy.
Death Café Guests
No, they’re not all “goths” and “suicidals.” In fact, it’s been found that the majority of Death Café attendees are regular aging baby boomers! Mid-life crisis maybe? Or maybe they’re just at the age where retrospection is experienced more commonly. Apart from this, the diversity of Death Café guests is astounding. Everyone from the 17 year old teen to the 77 year old senior seems to be interested in attending. From the number of people that attend, it’s clear that death is a subject that everyone secretly wants to speak about.
People have various reasons for attending. Some may be struggling with the loss of a friend or loved one and suddenly think about death and what happens after death more frequently. Others may sincerely want to deal with the practicalities of their own death or the possible death of a loved one. There are even those that are simply curious and want to come and experience something unique.
What needs to be stressed however is that the Death Café movement is by no means a professional therapeutic or counselling session. It is merely a forum for discussion. While some people may find solace and meaning during these meetings, they are not suitable for dealing with deep-seated issues related to death.
Death Cafes are always non-profit. They also don’t discriminate according to religion or personal views. This means that an atheist could very well be seated next to a Catholic, who is seated next to a Muslim. This is the beauty of the Death Café; various views are explored, but never imposed. Will you be the first to host a death café in South Africa?
Battersby, M., 2012, ‘The Death Café Movement: Tea and Mortality’, The Independent, viewed 8 April 2014, from http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/the-death-cafe-movement-tea-and-mortality-8082399.html
Facebook., n.d., ‘About’, Death Café, viewed 8 April 2014, from https://www.facebook.com/deathcafe/info?ref=ts
Lloyd, J., 2013, ‘Death cafes normalize a difficult, not morbid, topic’, USA Today, viewed 8 April 2014, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/04/07/health-spirituality-dying-death/2046805/
Prichep, D., 2013, ‘Death Cafes Breathe Life Into Conversations About Dying’, NPR, viewed 8 April 2014, from http://www.npr.org/2013/03/08/173808940/death-cafes-breathe-life-into-conversations-about-dying
Span, P., 2013, ‘Death Not Be Decaffeinated: Over Cup, Groups Face Taboo’, The New Old Age, viewed 8 April 2014, from http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/death-be-not-decaffeinated-over-cup-groups-face-taboo/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1
Image 1: Death Cafe Facebook Page, 31 March 2014, Death Cafe Logo, viewed on 11 April 2014, from https://www.facebook.com/deathcafe/photos_stream?fref=photo
Image 2: Mandelmann, E., and , Bernard Crettaz, viewed on 11 April 2014, from http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Crettaz
Image 3: Ames, C., n.d., Day Dreaming Retro Girl with Coffee, viewed on 11 April 2014, from http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/day-dreaming-retro-girl-with-coffee-royalty-free-image/187306498#
Image 4: Death Cafe Facebook Page, 9 April 2014, Comical Poster, viewed on 11 April 2014, from https://www.facebook.com/deathcafe/photos_stream?fref=photo
Image 5: photographer and designer, n.d., Gathering with friends, viewed on 11 April 2014, from http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/gathering-with-friends-royalty-free-image/146629348#
Featured image: Death Cafe Facebook, 31 March 2014, Death Cafe Logo, viewed on 11 April 2014, from https://www.facebook.com/deathcafe/photos_stream?fref=photo