I had heard a lot about Death Cafes but had never actually taken part in one until I attended an event hosted by local funeral celebrant Hannah Jackson-McCamley at the Oswald Copplepot coffee shop in Chiswick High Road earlier this year.
But what exactly is a Death Cafe I hear you ask? Us funeral folk are familiar with the term but every time I mention it to a friend or family member, they look slightly alarmed and wonder if I've finally lost my marbles.
Put simply, a Death Cafe is a pop-up event where people can gather together, drink tea, eat cake and talk openly about death. Sounds like a fun night out, right? Well, maybe surprisingly it's not only caught on, but has become something of a global phenomenon.
The Death Cafe movement was started by Londoner Jon Underwood who had been inspired by the ideas of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz who had run Cafe Mortal events in France and Switzerland. Jon hosted his first Death Cafe event in 2011 in his house in Hackney, East London.
The mission of a Death Cafe is 'to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives'. A Death Cafe is always run on a not for profit basis and has no agenda, objectives or themes. It is not a counselling session and there are no outcomes or conclusions to be drawn. It's simply an opportunity to talk openly about death in safe and non-judgmental space... with tea and cake, of course.
Since 2011 the Death Cafe concept spread quickly across Europe and the world, and today over 9,000 Death Cafes have taken place in over 66 countries around the world. With an average of 10 people per event that's almost 100,000 people who have taken part. So maybe people do want to talk about death after all...
Having created this global enterprise and provided guidance and advice to the many people around the world who wished to host their own death cafes, in a tragic twist of fate, Jon Underwood died suddenly in June 2017 from undiagnosed Leukaemia aged just 44, leaving behind his wife Donna and two children. The Death Cafe movement is now overseen by his mother Sue and sister Jools who continue his work, as he would have wished.
In this poignant video he talks about his reasons for setting up the Death Cafe concept and what to expect at an event...
Although the video was filmed some time ago, his comments about economic and political instability and environmental damage probably ring even more true today. Maybe that is why there is a real desire to focus on what is important: life and death.
Last week Hannah (above right) hosted another pop-up event entitled Good Mourning and so it was that I found myself around a candlelit scrubbed pine table with 10 strangers, who each had their own reasons for being there, in the eclectic Oswald Copplepot coffee shop on Chiswick High Road. With its ceiling decorated with open umbrellas and a vintage bicycle hanging from the rafters, there is something offbeat and slightly gothic about the place, which lent itself to the subject matter.
For reasons of confidentiality I won't go into too much detail about what was discussed, but it was a very free-flowing and fluid conversation, ranging from suicide to terrorism and terminal illness to legal matters. There were tears and laughter, tea and wine, love and support. At the end, people commented on how good they felt being able to talk about these things, how they felt like a weight had been lifted, and how they couldn't wait to come back again next time. Talking about death might be the last taboo, but it's something that will affect all of us at some point in our lives, so we might as well get comfortable discussing it. More cake anyone...?
If you're interesting in finding a Death Cafe taking place near you, click here.
To find out more about hosting your own Death Cafe, click here.
Have you ever attended a Death Cafe? Would you feel comfortable talking about death with strangers? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below...