The Birth and Life of Death Cafe

Almost six years ago, in September 2011, Jon Underwood held his very first “death cafe” in the basement of his home in east London. He put out tea and cake, and had people gather to talk about death, mortality and the finitude of life.

That first cafe, inspired by the ideas of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who developed the concept of “cafe mortels,” has since spawned a worldwide movement. Thousands of death cafes have been held in over 50 countries, including the United States. Other than to talk about death, the cafes had no specific agenda. Anyone could join, whether or not they were religious, superstitious or spiritual.

What is a Death Cafe?

A Death Cafe is a scheduled non-profit get-together (called “social franchises” by the organizers) for the purpose of talking about death over food and drink, usually tea and cake. The goal of these nonprofit groups is to educate and help others become more familiar with the end of life. The idea originates with the Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz (fr), who organized the first café mortel in 2004. They have since been held in several countries, beginning with France and the United Kingdom.

The death café is not a physical location, but is an event hosted at someone’s house or other pop-up/ temporary venue. The official objective of a death café is to help people make the most of their finite lives. Individuals can discuss their understanding, thoughts, dreams, fears and all other areas of death and dying at these events. There have been Death Cafes which specifically create a chance for health/care professionals to talk about death (Miles & Corr, 2015). Generally a death café will have in the region of 12 people gathered in a group discussing death related topics and usually lasts 2 hours (Adler, Remer, Coulter, & Miller, 2015). Tea and cake are one of the most important features to the event they assist with creating a nurturing and supportive environment (Underwood, 2015). The concept has spread due to media attention and because of the topic evoking so many different people’s thoughts of what death means (Miles & Corr, 2015).

Crettaz organized the first Cafe Mortel in Neuchâtel in 2004 with the aim of breaking the “tyrannical secrecy” surrounding the topic of death. He has written a book on the topic, Cafés Mortels: Sortir la Mort du Silence (Death Cafes: Bringing Death out of Silence). The Death Cafe website created by Death Cafe founder Jon Underwood, states the purpose as:

At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. Our objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.

Facilitators have said that there is “a need among people to open [the] closet” into which death, the “last taboo”, has been placed, to reduce fear and enable people to live more fully. He has said that at these gatherings, “the assembled company, for a moment, and thanks to death, is born into authenticity.” Jon Underwood, a former senior council worker and web developer who founded Death Cafe based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz, held the first Death Cafe in his home in London, stating that “we have lost control of one of the most significant events we ever have to face.”

According to one commentator, Crettaz wants to revive the pagan tradition of the funeral feast, “where the living would renew their bonds while letting go of what weighed on their hearts.”

The first Paris Cafe Mortel with Crettaz took place in 2010 and Underwood held the first London event in 2011 at his home, subsequently developing the Death Cafe website, generating guidelines with his mother (psychotherapist and Underwood’s first Death Cafe facilitator) Susan Barsky Reid, and publicising the concept which took off globally. The first US event was organized by Lizzy Miles, a hospice worker, in summer 2012 near Columbus, Ohio. By June 2014, the idea had spread to Hong Kong. As of March 2018, over 5,900 have been held worldwide. Venues include homes and rented halls as well as restaurants and cafes; a cemetery and a yurt have also been used. Café Totentanz or Totentanz-Café is used in German-speaking areas. In February 2013, a Death Cafe in London was filmed.

Death Cafes have helped to relax the taboo of speaking about death, particularly with strangers, and encouraged people to express their own wishes for after they die. The open-ended discussions also provide an avenue to express thoughts about one’s own life stirred up by the death of a family member.

Since Underwood’s death on 25th June 2017, Death Cafe is now run by his sister Jools Barsky and mother Susan Barsky Reid. An informative monograph on the movement, its thematic emphases, and its communicative dynamics can be found in The Death Café Movement: Exploring the Horizons of Mortality (2017) by Dr. Jack Fong.

What happens at a Death Cafe?

In a blog article written by Shepherd Bliss in January of this year, he explains what takes place at a Death Cafe in Sonoma, CA.

Putting the words “death” and “café” together may seem unusual. In the United States, many of us ignore our own pending, inevitable mortality. Many Americans do not accept that they will surely die, much less talk openly about it with others, especially strangers. On the other hand going to one’s favorite café is something that many enjoy. Being in a café setting talking about death may not seem inviting, yet it can be invigorating.

Death Cafes began in Europe. More than 5,400 monthly Death Cafes now exist in over 52 countries. Initiated in 2010 by John Underwood in London, they began in Sonoma County, California, soon after that, with various facilitators over time.

Adults of all ages are invited to sit around tables, share snacks and tea. They talk about their experiences, hopes, and fears at Death Cafes around the world. The basic idea is to create a comfortable, informal, and respectful environment, where people can talk openly and candidly.

Tess Lorraine has been facilitating them monthly since 2014 in Santa Rosa and began offering them in Sebastopol this January on the third Friday of each month, 3:30 to 5 p.m., at the Sebastopol Area Senior Center. They are open to all adults. The Santa Rosa gatherings happen at the Fountaingrove Lodge on Saturday afternoons.

“Increasingly, as we age, conversations happen regarding degenerative and life-threatening diagnoses,” said Lorraine. “The cost of denial is that we lose the opportunities for the wisdom, growth, and healing that can occur when we share authentically. Our death is our final frontier and our lasting legacy.”

In a Sonoma Death Café monthly newsletter Lorraine published the following Ancient Celtic Wisdom poem:

Be a full bucket, drawn up the dark way of the well.
Something lifts you up into the light
and shows you your wings.
A full cup is set before you.
You taste only sacredness.

According to the website, “At a Death Cafe people gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. Our objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’…There is no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action.”

“A Death Cafe is a group-directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counseling session,” the website continues.

Death Cafés are not a place to proselytize, seeking to convert others to one’s beliefs about death and dying. It is a place to tell and honor one’s stories, as well as to hear different perspectives.

Death Cafes offer a structure and format that encourage conversation. Laughter is not unusual, especially as people get to know each other and feel comfortable enough to share in a safe, facilitated environment. Death Cafes are one indication of growing death awareness here and elsewhere in the U.S.

“For everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…,” according to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk “Thich Nhat Hanh had a beautiful way of putting it when a little girl asked him if he’d decided what he’d be in his next life. He said maybe a little dust, and some soil and a bit of the sky, a cloud, a flower, and perhaps other stuff. Then he said ‘oops,’ he had to be careful or he might step on the flower, if he wasn’t being mindful and laughed,” according to Deborah Thayer.

Many indigenous cultures are more death aware than the dominant American cultures. For example, this reporter lived in Mexico and appreciates that country’s annual Day of the Dead celebration, where families go to graveyards at night to honor their ancestors. It is still my favorite holiday. I have attended them here in Sonoma County.

A deep connection exists between love and death. As the poem “For Those Who Have Died” by Chaim Stern starts “’Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.”

Final thoughts

We think that talking about death is a great way to spend some time. If you agree, why not hold your own Death Cafe?  Holding your own Death Cafe is inexpensive, straightforward and fun. To find out more about Death Cafe and information on how to hold one, click on this link. Death Cafe.

Posted in For Families, Hot Topics, In The News.


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