Open conversations about death and dying – a filmed Death Cafe

As published on  dying matters – 12 February 2013

Sophie MarsdenThey may not be giving Starbucks a run for its money yet, but Death Cafés are a rapidly growing trend worldwide.

Sophie Marsden, left, is a Bournemouth University journalism student currently working on a multi-media project exploring society’s changing attitudes towards death. She shares her experience of attending and filming a Death Café – the first time one has ever been filmed.

“It is very liberating to have an open space where people can share and learn from others.” Death Café attendee

“If your loved ones were able to hear your tributes I feel they would be very moved.” Death Café attendee

On Sunday 3 February nine people, most of whom were strangers to each other, gathered over tea and cakes to engage in an open discussion about death and dying.

A Death Café with a twist, this small event was captured on film and will be showcased as part of a multi-media project exploring society’s changing attitudes towards death, dying and end of life planning.

The concept is to bring people together in a relaxed and safe setting where they can feel free to discuss death and dying openly. With the aim to increase an awareness of death in order to help people make the most of their lives, conversations often differ from discussions of funeral options or questions on how to approach someone who has been recently bereaved.

I first attended a Death Café back in November 2012 at the Wild Food Café in London and was amazed that these events were taking place. I was moved by the fact that complete strangers were breaking the taboo of talking about death by meeting up in public places to participate in wonderfully open and honest discussions. I immediately felt the need to share this fascinating experience with others, and capture some of the beautiful and often life affirming moments on film.

This first ever filming of a Death Café took place over the course of an afternoon in a private house in Willesden Green. The owner of the house, Josefine Speyer, who also helped facilitate the event, is a psychotherapist and the co-founder of the Natural Death Centre.

I was initially apprehensive at how many guests the event would attract as I felt that although people were becoming more open about talking about death, they may not be ready to be filmed. However, through the power of Twitter and an advertisement on the Death Café website we were able to accommodate a small group of people whom we thought would be perfect for an in-depth discussion.

Upon arrival guests were seated at a beautiful table on which pots of tea and delicious nibbles were arrayed. The camera was placed in an unobtrusive spot to capture the welcoming ambiance of the room and the conversations without making anyone uncomfortable.

Josefine started by introducing the concept of Death Café before encouraging everyone to introduce themselves and explain why they had come. It was a diverse mix of people of all ages, but all were willing to listen and engage with each other’s thoughts and opinions. Some had a background in the funeral industry and wanted to find a way to connect with the bereaved family members they offered their services to; others were there to try to come to terms with their grief by sharing stories of their deceased loved ones.

One woman’s story of the sudden loss of her young daughter in May this year was particularly moving. She spoke bravely and positively about how the personal funeral she had arranged for her child helped her cope with her grief. I very much enjoyed listening to the tales of the illicit scattering of her ashes from modified saltshakers in places that she had loved to visit, including Paris and Holland.

Most of all I was touched by how people reached out to one another, offering advice and solace as if they were good friends, when in reality most of us had only just met.

We also discussed how old traditions have combined with new, including sites such as Facebook that now play a bigger part in facilitating a community, giving people the opportunity to commemorate loved ones through photos, audio, video and personalised messages.

After a short break the vibe of the room had very much relaxed and people seemed more at ease with each other. Many touched upon the idea of death echoes, with some describing vivid moments when they had been sure that they had felt their loved ones beside them.

There were many moments of laughter as people spoke about the beauty of individuality and the numerous ways different cultures commemorate the dead. I realised that talking about death doesn’t have to be morbid: not only can you learn a lot from others’ experiences but they make you appreciate your own life and be even more inspired to make the most of the time you have left.

As the café drew to a close what stood out in the footage was that everybody was smiling.  Comments were made about the ease with which we had spoken about very big topics, such as the fear of death and the fear of losing a loved one. However overwhelming, there was a sense that everybody had been deeply touched and moved by the stories of others.

Many felt encouraged to visit more Death Cafés as they were curious to see whether the same depth of conversation could be achieved with a larger group of people or with a different facilitator.

As the group said their goodbyes, one lady shared a bucket list that she had found among her daughter’s things after she had died. What this woman said stuck with me most: “Don’t hold onto your dreams because you’ll just keep dreaming.”

History of Death Café

Jon Underwood brought the concept of Death Café to the UK in 2010 after being inspired by an article about the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. Jon was particularly interested in the concept of Café Mortal, a place where people could gather in public to talk about death in Switzerland. He then began the process to facilitate his own Death Café in the UK, with the first one taking place in the basement of his home in September 2011.

Since then, the movement has grown from strength to strength, with Death Café recently hosting its 50th event at the Graveland exhibition in London. Cafés have been held all over the UK, with locations from the Royal Festival Hall to quirky cafes in Bristol and the privacy of people’s homes. The phenomenon has also spread to America, Canada, Australia and more recently to Italy, proving there is a real demand for these conversations to take place.

Death Cafés are always offered:

  • On a non-profit basis, though to be sustainable they try to cover expenses through donations and fund-raising.
  • In an accessible, respectful and confidential space, free of discrimination where people can express their views safely.
  • With no intention of leading participants towards any particular conclusion, product or course of action.

Can I hold my own Death Café?

Death Cafés are all slightly different, as people love to put their own unique spin on them. Anyone can hold one; all you need is a facilitator, space, attendees and refreshments.

Jon Underwood has set up a guide on how to host your own Death Café on the Death Café website.

The dying to talk project and footage of the death café will be available soon at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s