Dying to talk about death

Talking about death was always considered a taboo but as we start to question the meaning of life there is an increasing curiosity to explore the end. Sophie Marsden investigates a growing appetite to talk…

In the end we will all ‘kick the bucket’, ‘pop our clogs’ or ‘bite the big one’, Death is the one thing we can count on. But despite a variety of ways to say ‘you will die’ we get lost for words when discussing our own mortality. We instinctively distance ourselves from the subject by avoiding the discussion and even the word. This avoidance has become an art – we outsource where we can, leaving the crucial parts to an undertaker and whispered innuendo. We turn up at funerals dressed in black, offer our condolences and try our best to focus on conversations about life. How ironic. But there is a longing to airbrush the imperfections of the past with an increasing craving for a ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ of funeral choices and a more expressive approach to death.

Introducing a new trend, pop-up cafes where death is on the menu. Death Cafes offer a new way of making sense of the end – our own, our friends’ and our family’s, a place where strangers can meet to talk about death and dying. For those uninitiated, Death Cafes were inspired by the Swiss concept of ‘Café Mortal’, born out of the French ‘Philosophy Cafes’ that originated in the 20th century.

Inventor, sociologist Bernard Crettaz wanted to bring death into everyday conversation by holding discussion groups in public. Advocator of the British movement, Jon Underwood was inspired by his work and suggests that talking about death doesn’t have to be morbid. “It can be very liberating because the way our society shuts down conversations about death can be claustrophobic and stifling so I find that there is a feeling of relief and people talk with a real authenticity and passion, but with lots of laughter thrown in.” Jon held the first official British Death Café in the basement of his home in 2011. He felt there was a need for death education in Britain and has since inspired over 50 other events through a ‘how to’ guide on his website.

It was all smiles after an afternoon of death talk

It was all smiles after an afternoon of death talk

Lets talk about death

I joined a Death Cafe held by Josefine Speyer, psychotherapist and co-founder of the Natural Death Centre. Set-up in her decorative living room in a town house in central London, the elegant woman in her sixties greeted me with a warm smile. She tells me that her motto is to “embrace death as part of life” and stresses the importance of death education within society.

“It’s a bit like sex education, death education. It’s best to know all about it so you can aim for what you really want.”

Josefine suggests the problem is that we no longer feel that death is imminent. Advances in science now allow most of us to live past our eighties – a stark contrast to a century ago when you were lucky to make it to fifty. The latest ONS report revealed that death is in decline with 2011 marking the lowest death toll ever recorded in England and Wales. But death is still a part of our lives and people do die so what should we do if we want to talk about it? “Death Café is a wonderful way of inviting people from whatever level to approach it. Sometimes people don’t know how to talk about death because they haven’t been brought up to talk about it,” says Josefine. As a beginner in this death debate I shift in my seat nervously as eight strangers take their seats around me.

Guests share books and stories with each other

Guests share books and stories with each other

I was surprised at the diversity of those who attended. There were a variety of age groups, genders and, most importantly, an assortment of attitudes. Some had a background in the funeral industry and wanted to find a way to connect with bereaved families, others were there to try to come to terms with their grief by sharing stories of their deceased loved-ones. They spoke about rituals conducted to commemorate the dead, with many advocating a ‘new’ more personalised funeral and others remaining set on the traditional “cutting of the cord.” For many there was a sense of yearning, for a time when society hadn’t become so removed from death. One gentleman suggested that an undertaker’s purpose was to provide detachment. He said: “Taking the body away to be prepped behind the closed doors of the mortuary – out of sight and therefore out of mind.” Another women, Catherina Petit-van Hoey, suggested that the problem of outsourcing the care of our dead was that it stops us from dealing with death in a healthy way.

 “In the past and in lots of other communities in the world, people care for the dead themselves, they prepare the body and help organise the funeral and in doing that we discover so much healing energy.”

New approaches

Catherina’s daughter, Kiama died suddenly of Lemierre’s syndrome in May 2012. The 22-year-old was due to graduate Norwich University of the Arts in the summer when she was admitted to hospital and later died. “We realised that she was a very creative person and hated things like black hearses and things like that, and there was no way we would have a traditional service,” said Catherina.


Catherina (left) and Ilana (Right) decorate the coffin

Instead they held a life celebration, decorating her coffin with Facebook tributes and cuttings of her artwork. They also rented a VW camper van to take the coffin to the crematorium – the van Kiama had dreamed of going travelling in. Catherina explained that it was therapeutic for her to do something with her hands and talked of how it helped her to re-balance her life. Catherina and her family are not alone. The funeral industry has seen an influx in more personalised do-it-yourself funerals with programmes such as BBC 2’s ‘Dead Good Job’ and Channel 5’s ‘Bizarre Burials’ showcasing our appetite for the weird and the wonderful funeral alternatives. There is also a growing popularity for younger people to create a ‘bucket list’ – a note of all the things you want to do before you die. The term stems from the phrase ‘kick the bucket’ and was made popular by the release of the film in 2007. New research shows that over half of those aged between 18-44 have already written one, are thinking about what to include in one or are planning to write one in the future.


Kiama’s bucket list inspired others

Kiama’s family were surprised to discover a list she had written a year before her death, with her notes including “don’t hold on to your dreams or you will just keep dreaming” and as Catherina passed a copy around the table they no longer felt like strangers. Within the space of an afternoon we had laughed, debated and chatted, tackling the big life questions of how you will die? What funeral you would like? And whether we were all just plain strange for even talking about it? But as we all said our goodbyes it wasn’t death I was thinking about, it was life and how from now on I was going to make the most of it.

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 dyingtotalk.wordpress.com