Last Thursday I attended my first Death Café. This was the second such event in San Diego and one of many such gatherings that have sprung up throughout the country in the last year. The Death Café movement is an offshoot of the “café mortel” phenomenon that emerged in Switzerland and France about 10 years ago. These informal gatherings are not grief support groups or end-of-life planning sessions, but rather casual get togethers for people who want to freely dialogue around the issues of death…while drinking tea and eating cake.
What is death like? Why do we fear it? How do our views of death inform the way we live? Part informal chat session, part group therapy, part intrigue, Death Cafes are designed as an informal way to talk about a formal and sobering topic. A volunteer facilitator, often someone who has a professional tie to end of life care, leads the meeting. (My facilitator was Ms. Karen Van Dyke who is a Senior Care Advocate). The participants included people of all ages, all fields, working and retired.
Ms. Van Dyke started the evening asking a series of questions: What is your biggest fear about death? What do you want your legacy to be? She had brought clipped out questions that were placed in a bowl and each group was assigned the task to remove a question and
begin the dialogue. My group tackled the question of “How do you want to die, including where, when and how?” The conversations were endless until we exhausted that topic and moved on. Another question was to finish the sentence “Before I Die I Want to … .” The responses included “See Egypt,” “Win the lottery,” “Write a book of poems” and “See my daughter grow up.”
The Death Cafe movement has just a few ground rules. Meetings are confidential and not for profit. People must respect one another’s beliefs and avoid proselytizing. And tea and cake play an important role.
“In Europe, there’s a tradition of meeting in informal ways to discuss ideas — the café philosophique, the café scientifique,” said Jon Underwood, a 40 year old Web designer in London who said he held the first Death Cafe in his basement in 2011 and has propagated
the concept through a Web site he maintains, www.deathcafe.com.
Mr. Underwood adapted the idea from a Swiss sociologist, Bernard Crettaz, who had organized “café mortels” to try to foster more open discussions of death. “There’s a growing recognition that the way we’ve outsourced death to the medical profession and to funeral directors hasn’t done us any favors,” Mr. Underwood said. He envisioned Death Cafe as “a space where people can discuss death and find meaning and reflect on what’s important and ask profound questions.”
After speaking with Mr. Underwood he appears impassioned and humbled by the growth of the movement he started. “I would hope that everyone who attends a Death Café will depart feeling a little more open to the topic of death.” I certainly observed that last Thursday as the conversations continued well after the tea and goodies were gone.
A version of this article appeared in print on 06/17/2013, on page A1 of the New York Times edition with the headline: Tea, Two Sugars, and Death: Cafe Groups Ponder the End.