Lauren and I were out getting sushi and sake when another person she knew came up to our table to say hello. Lauren’s friend asked how we knew each other and I immediately said, “Oh, from Death Cafe!” Her friend was first taken aback, then wary, but politely interested. When she left I turned to Lauren and asked if it was okay that I shared that part of her life. Lauren assured me that she tells people about Death Cafe all the time, and enjoys seeing how they react.
So is the experience of Death Cafe – equal parts excited to talk about death, but with the careful understanding that it might not be for everyone.
*The names in this article have been changed to enable the subjects to remain anonymous
What is a Death Cafe all about? My experience studying, participating and hosting Death Cafes
What are Death Cafes?
Death Cafe is a ‘social franchise’ whose principles were developed in 2011 by Jon Underwood and his mother, Sue Barsky Reid, to help facilitate easy conversation about death with the comfort of food and drink. Death Cafe is a volunteer operation, with hosts who organize small groups in cities and towns around the world. Death Cafes groups meet in cafes, of course, but also in public libraries, churches, community centers, people’s houses, cemeteries, and beyond, to share foods, drinks, and conversation about death. Since the pandemic, many of these meetings have shifted online, and while there is no shared food and drink, the conversations continue.
Death Cafes have no theme, agenda, or foregone conclusion. Topics for discussion can be broached by any member of the group. However, they are not meant to be grief or end of life support groups. Volunteer leaders are not required and often do not have training for psychological support or counseling. Although people experiencing grief are welcome to join and talk about it, the group is not designed to offer mental health advice.
If you are wondering what to expect at your first Death Cafe, you should first know that there are no requirements to speak. At in-person meetings, people will often sit around a table or in a circle, group-sharing style. The facilitator will provide an introduction and brief explanation of what Death Cafe is and any guidelines they want to highlight. Individual Death Cafes may follow certain customs, like no “crosstalk” in which a response to another person includes advice or critique. Armed with drinks and snacks, the facilitator will open the conversation by asking for anyone to begin. Then the conversation flows from there.
Joining A Death Cafe
There have been Death Cafes in over 80 countries. You can find one in nearly every major city, and the pandemic created a space for many groups to go online, opening Death Cafes up to people from anywhere in the world. I joined my local Death Cafe in November 2020, which had moved online by that point. My joining was a little more nuanced than most, because I was also conducting research for my dissertation. So I attended the first Cafe, got the host Carl’s information, and confirmed that it was okay that I join and use some of the information for my project (called participant-observation in anthropology lingo). Carl agreed, and we came up with a system for me to “announce” myself to the group and receive everyone’s consent.
I like to think that my presence didn’t disrupt the flow of conversation, but that is one of the challenges of doing anthropological research. I had to balance my desire to chat (and I am chatty) with my work as an objective observer. During events, I was careful not to direct the conversation, contributing to the existing topic instead. If you attend as a participant only, you don’t have to worry too much about these dynamics!
In those first months of my attendance, conversations ranged from end of life arrangements and choices about disposition, to what song you wanted played at your funeral, and even to marriage plans. We talked as much about life as we did about death. And, as the COVID pandemic raged, we had a lot to discuss.
Hosting Death Cafes
After more than six months of regular attendance, Carl, who was the original host of our Death Cafe, and his co-host Cynthia asked me to consider joining them as a Death Cafe facilitator. I was honored and excited to be considered, and I soon joined the hosting rotation. While I hosted, I did not take any notes for my dissertation. I wanted to be present and free to direct the conversation if needed.
During my first month as a host, Carl attended and offered me feedback. He shared advice about embracing silence and allowing it to settle. Someone will always break the silence, he told me. And, if I’m being honest, I am usually the person to do so. But as a host I worked hard to let those silent moments stretch, sometimes longer than a minute. This advice has also served me in my teaching. Someone always gives in to the urge to speak. Carl said, “if you are not a trained facilitator, read up on facilitation and attend a Death Cafe with an experienced Death Cafe leader. Besides setting up the context and a few ground rules, the less you say as leader the better. People attend because they want to talk, or hear other peoples’ experiences, not yours.”
A common technique among first and last responders is to make light of death or the situation you are in. As a former death investigator, I still find this impulse arises when the mood is low, and I struggled with this impulse as a Death Cafe host. But I fought it, because the objective of Death Cafe is not to make light of death, it is to face it, in whatever form that takes.
A note for anyone interested in hosting a Death Cafe: to use the name and act as an affiliate with Death Cafe, volunteers must sign up through the official website and agree to the guiding principles.
Making Friends As A (Certain Kind) of Adult
Through hosting and attending Death Cafes, I have had the pleasure of making a few friends. We go out to dinner and grab coffee. Sometimes we talk about death, but often we just talk about our lives and other shared interests.
I have just entered my 30s, and making friends as an adult is proving to be pretty difficult, especially with the pandemic limiting in-person interactions. The beauty of our Death Cafe community is that I meet people who are outside of my generation and typical friend group. I received advice about my upcoming wedding from octogenarians who have been married for fifty years. I hear the perspective of people who are, by typical standards, much closer to death than I am.
Carl and Cynthia have worked hard to build a community around their Death Cafes, which now number well over 100 in the almost 10 years that Carl has been hosting. Before COVID, our Death Cafe would meet in a local chapel next to a sprawling cemetery. They would share drinks and cakes, embodying the model developed by Underwood.
I am hopeful that our group will return to in-person soon, allowing for that important face-to-face interaction that makes death so real. Carl explains that “the consistent support we have received is proof enough for me that talking about death is life affirming. Sure, there are serious and sad moments, but there is laughter, learning and light.” And this has been my experience too.
As a researcher and a participant and a facilitator and a former death worker, our Death Cafe has allowed me to see the depth and breadth of the way people think about death and dying. And even though my research is winding down, I’m still an active participant and facilitator for my Death Cafe. After all, it’s my field of study, and I still like to talk about it!
You can find a Death Cafe by searching on the official website, but affiliates also post meetings on group gathering websites like Eventbrite and Meetup. Carl advises anyone considering starting their own Death Cafe to “follow the guidelines for setting up and running a Death Cafe found on www.deathcafe.com. Follow them exactly and consistently. They work.”
If you would like to talk more about death, fear death and dying, or are experiencing grief, Death Cafes are a wonderful place to sit with those perspectives. As Carl likes to say, “talking about death won’t kill you.”