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Death cafés: alive and well

Death Café – the pop-up 'social franchise' aimed at encouraging people to discuss death – held its 50th session last month when a group gathered in the crypt of London’s St Pancras church amid an exhibition of cemetery and death-related imagery for a nice cup of tea, a slice of cake – and a conversation about death.

Organised by Jon Underwood, a former local government strategist, the Death Café concept stems from the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. Jon read about a Parisian version in November 2010 and worked with the Natural Death Centre and Dying Matters to come up with a version here.

“I’ve always felt that if we were more sorted about death, the world would be a much, much better place,” he said. “Our society has a silence around death, yet reflecting on death can help us to enjoy life more; it adds perspective and maybe makes us a bit more resilient.”

All the day’s ‘guests’ had different reasons for attending. One wanted to know how to talk to a friend about her imminent death. Another was thinking about a career as a funeral director. A third, already a funeral celebrant, wanted to hear others’ views and perspectives, as did a designer of  bio-degradable burial garments. One attendee was doing a degree project, while someone else wanted to learn more about holding a similar event with her church’s end-of-life-care group.

Of this group, only one was experiencing the immediacy of a recent bereavement.
Jon says this division between those who have recent personal experience of death and those whose interest is one step removed is usual: the café is ideally targeted at people who are not immediately dying or in the midst of bereavement.

Sue Barsky Reid, a psychotherapist and counsellor who also happens to be Jon’s mum, led the session. There were some tears but also plenty of laughter as the conversation swung from the philosophical, to the practical and the personal – and in between, the  teapot, baklava, shortbread and slices of Italian rainbow cake were passed around.

Jon held the first Death Café in his own basement and press-ganged friends into attending, but the idea has taken off. Over 200 people have so far attended and locations have been as varied as the Royal Festival Hall and a yurt.

The café concept is part of a wider death-related project called Impermanence, which also includes the Funeral Advisor website and work with Dying Matters. Jon has produced a guide to running a Death Cafe and has plans for working with specific groups; older or younger people, ex-offenders and people with substance misuse problems.

Photo: Lauren F. Wikipedia Commons

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