The Death Cafe: Coffee, Tea and Taboo Conversation

Most people don't like to talk about death, fearing the mere mention of the word will hasten their own end. They fear the unknown, the "what comes next." They pretend they can avoid that aspect of life, although no one has successfully done so yet.

Jon Underwood wants to change that mindset. Four years ago, the British Web designer hosted the first "Death Cafe" in East London. Since then, organizers in 27 countries have hosted about 1,500 Death Cafes, using guidelines Underwood established. These gatherings invite strangers to come together in homes, coffee shops, bars and other public gathering spaces and discuss the inevitable. Doing so, he believes, can mitigate the fear of death and encourage people to focus the time they have on what matters most to them.

Seizing the Moment

"Coming to terms with death is coming to terms with the realization that there are a certain number of days, weeks, years, months, hours, minutes left, a finite time," and asking the question, "'What do I want to do with it?'" said Underwood, who joked that the closest his job takes him to death is when he manages the website of a U.K. charity called Dying Matters.

Underwood was inspired by the work of sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who hosted the first "cafes mortels" in Switzerland in the early 2000s. He hosted his first Death Cafe in his home in September 2011. His mother, a psychotherapist, served as facilitator. This premiere was a structured affair: Attendees were asked to share what they wanted for the rest of their lives and to write down their fears. The latter slips of paper were then ceremoniously burned.

Afterward, Underwood's mother had an insight. "She said, 'That was great, but all that writing and burning and stuff? Just let people talk,'" he said. "That's all it is. It's just talking about death over tea and cake."

So organizers who follow Underwood's Death Cafe model hold unstructured, free-flowing events. There are no theme events, no prompts. If conversation lags completely, a facilitator may ask a question, but only then. No two gatherings are alike. The only essential constant for each, he said, are the tea and cake – or their equivalents. (One Australian newspaper noted that locals would more likely enjoy a "Flat White" espresso-type drink instead of tea.)

"It gives people something to latch on to," he said. "It helps mitigate the fear and establish community."

Forging Connections

A Death Cafe isn't a substitute for a bereavement group. Organizers don't provide tips on funeral planning or suggestions for end-of-life care or to-do lists for the dying.

"It's not an educational event. I'm not giving you information or handing out brochures," said Lizzy Miles, who, along with a friend, brought the Death Cafe concept to the U.S. "It's a place for people to talk if they want to talk. It's not more complicated than that."

Miles, who works as a social worker in a hospice care center, has hosted about 20 Death Cafe gatherings since the first one in Columbus, Ohio, in July 2012. In one, she recalled, a Jewish attendee asked why some religions preferred an open casket, as it was something foreign to her. In another, the group was discussing obituaries and one person said those didn't matter in her culture: "Once you're gone, you're gone. Why do you care what people think about you on earth?"

"Every time I get worn-out, I'll have an event and people have a great conversation and I get roped back in," she said.

Underwood isn't sure what's made the 2000s a good time for Death Cafe growth. About 20 years ago, he recalled, the British nonprofit Natural Death Centre began hosting Death Salons, gatherings built around similar principles, and the idea went nowhere. Maybe, he muses, it's the aging of the baby-boom generation pushing the issue. (A majority of Death Cafe attendees are women over 40, he said.) Maybe continuing financial uncertainty and mounting evidence of environmental destruction and a general dissatisfaction with modern life is driving the emerging trend.

"People are questioning things. They're looking for answers and they want to start somewhere," he said.

Moving On

Underwood, who volunteers his time giving advice to would-be organizers and managing the Death Cafe website, asks U.K. participants to complete evaluation forms after attending an event. A vast majority say they've enjoyed the discussions and plan to attend another. But few actually do, he said, and that's probably healthy.

"People come, they talk about death for a couple of hours, they enjoy it, and then they go out and carry on their lives," he said. "They check in with death and then go and live."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."