By Erica Stratton

(Credit: Image from Flickr user Robb1e)

It only takes one sentence to sum up Death Cafe’s purpose and method, but it is a rather striking sentence:

“At Death Cafes, people come together in a relaxed and safe setting to discuss death, drink tea and eat delicious cake.”

If you read one of the guides to hosting your own Death Cafe, you’ll see that cake and tea are considered essential to the discussion, rather than a twee goth touch for those more interested in mourning dresses than the mourning process. The cake and tea (or, more recently, casseroles and cocktails) are meant to create a safe and nurturing environment in which people feel relaxed enough to explore difficult subjects. A communal meal can also signal that, even during a conversation about the end of life, there can be a cause for celebration.

What is a Death Cafe?

The most current Death Cafe guide makes a point of explaining what Death Cafes should not be: grief counseling. Instead, a Death Cafe is for people who want to discuss death in a way that their regular lives may not allow space for, exploring their own beliefs and comparing their experiences with those of other people. Death Cafe attendees can include those facing terminal illnesses, those experiencing death in their families for the first time or those who come in contact with death every day through their work. The event can also be for those who are simply curious — yet respectful — of the end of life process.

How Do Death Cafes Work?

Currently, Death Cafe participants number more than 400 and span nine countries (the U.S. organizers suspect there may be far more since their records are only self-reported). One of the keys to Death Cafe’s success is its self-described “social franchise” model, which provides anyone interested in hosting their own Death Cafe with an easy-to-follow guide. Rather than requiring a large space or a definite number of attendees, these events can be scaled to the host’s comfort level and organizational ability. Death Cafes have ranged from being as simple as a three-person meetup for tea in a living room to a 70-plus gathering in a local cafe, cemetery or hall. (One organizer, Jon Underwood, even held a Death Cafe in a yurt.) Advertizing for the event can range from a Facebook invite, to handmade posters, to word of mouth. With an email pledging to follow Death Cafe’s mission, hosts can also become no-cost “affiliates,” gaining access to advertise their events on Death Cafe’s Twitter and Facebook page.

The other genius of Death Cafe is that discussions are meant to be freeform, though opening questions and other conversation-starting exercises can be used. Without a single prescription for dealing with death or one religious belief controlling the discussion, the hope is Death Cafe conversations are accessible to people of all faiths and experience levels. Topics of discussion may wander from hospice care, to ways of dealing with grief, to more fanciful speculations in which people imagine their ideal deaths (e.g. “I’d like to go off the Hudson Bridge, naked with a jazz band playing and my body decked in flowers”).

Where Did Death Cafes Come From?

The seed of the current American Death Cafe was planted by an Englishman, who in turn received it from a Swiss sociologist. In 2004, sociologist Bernard Crettaz started a series of living room meetings he called “Cafes Mortels” with the stated goal of helping people to better appreciate their lives through the discussion of death. These first meetings were characterized by an unusual honesty, and Crettaz later wrote in his book Cafés Mortels: Sortir la Mort du Silence, “... I have the impression that the assembled company, for a moment, and thanks to death, is born into authenticity.” The idea of a space to talk honestly about death was further expanded by Englishman Jon Underwood a few years later after he read an article about the original Swiss incarnation. With the help of Councillor Sue Barsky Reid, the idea of creating an easy-to-follow guide for others to hold similar cafes was born. Finally, the idea made its way across the pond to Lizzy Miles, who held the first American Death Cafe in Ohio in 2012.

What’s Next — Death Cafeterias?

Some articles portray Death Cafes as part of a growing movement towards openly discussing death, and it’s true that TED talks about “death dinners” and websites like the Order of the Good Death add to this conception. However, when I called Lizzy Miles in early 2013 to discuss what it took to put on one of these events, she revealed that most people who want to host are part of what she refers to as “the industry”: jobs that deal directly with the process of death and dying. Trauma counselors, morticians and hospice aids are more commonly the people asking for Death Cafe affiliations, rather than 20-somethings looking to discuss death on their own terms before a family member’s age forces the issue. However, since I was the second “civilian” in a month asking about Death Cafes, she wondered aloud if it might be time for the franchise to branch out.

In July of this year, Jon Underwood blogged about how the total number of reported Death Cafes had jumped from 20 to 170 in just 12 months. Lizzy Miles attributes this jump to a presentation on Death Cafes that she did at a conference for death education professionals, as well as an interest from celebrants looking for ideas for end-of-life tributes. To accommodate the growing numbers, the formerly Blogger-based Death Cafe website has been updated to something more social. Death Cafe organizers can now upload their own event announcements, photos and write-ups, as well as discuss death on the forums. (There’s even a page for death art.)

Along with the website update, there are also plans for a community discussion about the future of Death Cafes and how the events might change in light of their sudden popularity. Some organizers wonder if the U.S. events are moving away from original ideal; others are happy to see the surge of interest from people not involved in “the industry,” but worry that hosts without at least some background in counseling may find they’re unprepared for conversations about what is admittedly a heavy topic.

A date for this broad community discussion hasn’t yet been announced. Nevertheless, new Death Cafes are scheduled to happen soon in New York and D.C., demonstrating the timeless interest in what’s traditionally thought of as too “morbid” a subject to speak of openly. As one Death Cafe attendee put it, “Who isn't interested in death, except those in denial?”

Erica Stratton is a D.C. freelancer looking for more productive ways to think about death than staring at the ceiling at 2 A.M. She also rants about sci-fi and fantasy on Twitter under @meanderingwhale.

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