“People eat a lot more at a funeral than they do at a wedding … death has a beautiful quality about it that just helps people live,” said Jon Underwood at a seminar, two years after his creation, the Death Cafe, was born.
The very first cafe was hosted in Underwood’s basement in the London borough of Hackney, bringing together mostly friends and acquaintances to trial the idea that talking about death can benefit the living. Tea and cake – a vital part of any Death Cafe, fostering a sense of comfort and safety – were served, and Susan Barsky Reid, Underwood’s mother, facilitated the event.
A psychotherapist by trade, Barsky Reid remembers the 2011 event as experimental and, eventually, cathartic for the participants. “It was the 25th of September, was a bit cool. We had a fire, and we organised it very minutely because we had no idea what was going to happen. And so we had exercises; we had people’s ideas … we were going to burn them in the fire. Write them down and burn them.
“We did all of this stuff, but it became very apparent that people just wanted the opportunity to talk … to talk about death because in society, in British society anyway, people don’t find it comfortable to talk about death … And so we came to the conclusion after the first one that we didn’t need to have a structure other than to say, we are here to talk about death and dying. That is usually enough to get people talking.”
Inspired by the work of Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz, the social franchise took off internationally. Thousands of cafes have reportedly taken place across 51 countries since 2011, with current listings in the US, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Spain and Germany, among other places.
Crettaz had paved the way for Death Cafe with his own “cafe mortel” in Switzerland years before, hoping to break the taboo surrounding death. The first of his cafes was held in the Swiss town of Neuchatel in 2004.
In October 2014, in a room set out with chairs and tables, laden with wine and nuts, Crettaz hosted his final get-together, putting an end to his long-held fantasy that he would die during a cafe mortel.
Josefine Speyer, is also a psychotherapist and the cofounder of the Natural Death Centre, a charity based in Winchester, England, giving advice on “all aspects of dying”. Speyer has been one of the most regular hosts of Death Cafes in London.
“I see Death Cafe as another wave in the natural death movement, where death is a natural part of life,” says her profile on the Death Cafe website. “We can talk openly and honestly about issues of dying and death as a normal part of conversation. That is also a way we can create a more compassionate society, where we realise we are all in the same boat, we are all mortal, and life and the planet we live on is precious.”
Barsky Reid reiterates this point in discussing why Underwood, while volunteering at a hospice, had started the Death Cafe movement.
“I think his feeling was mostly helplessness. That there wasn’t a lot that he could do to help people but what we all needed to realise is that, actually, just being alongside somebody is enough. Just to have a companion.
“I remember him telling me that once he explained to people that he was a Buddhist – and Buddhists are mindful that they’re going to die – as a volunteer, and one of the people in the hospice asked him to do some chanting. I can remember him telling me. So he did some chanting of their mantras or prayers. I think he enjoyed doing that.”
But it’s not only the terminally ill or the elderly who have questions about death. On the contrary, young people are frequently seen at the Death Cafes, with a notable female majority. Barsky Reid puts this down to modern day advertising and how comfortable people are with being vulnerable.
“I would say 75 percent are women,” says Barsky Reid. “And quite a few, at the beginning particularly, were young. I think because it was spread through the internet and that it seems to be that, certainly younger people, seemed more able to use social media and a lot of it [Death Cafe advertising] was spread that way. You got younger people coming. And I think women are more open to talking about feelings than the men. I can think of one Death Cafe where there were no men at all.”
In July of this year, Underwood suffered a fatal brain haemorrhage, triggered by undiagnosed acute promyelocytic leukaemia. He was 44. Barsky Reid says she doesn’t see her son’s creation as something that can help her overcome his death.
“Nothing can help with your child dying before you do. The world isn’t as lovely a place for me now as it was when he was in it.”
Does death scare someone who has experienced it so closely in both a personal and social context?
“I don’t know because I haven’t had to face my own death. Obviously, I’m dying, like everybody, but you know, I’m well at the moment. I don’t at this moment feel afraid of what it could be. I was there when Jon died and when my parents died. And, none of those deaths were scary. Maybe I’ve been lucky but nobody was in pain or screaming, they were all peaceful.”
Barsky Reid and Underwood’s sister, Jools Barsky, have committed to keeping his vision alive. The Death Cafe community remains active online.