My First Visit to a Death Cafe

On Saturday 9th March 2013, I made my first visit to a Death Cafe. It was in Cambridge (UK). I parked where I always park when going into town and walked to the venue via streets I’ve trod all my life. But it felt very different.


The first impact came from just hearing the name - Death Café. Thinking about people getting together with the sole purpose of discussing death, made me feel uncomfortable. As if anticipating this, they offer tea, coffee and slices of cake as if to compensate. Thinking about it more, I realised the name was a very evocative contradiction in terms, a stroke of genius. What image does the word café bring to mind? For me it’s the TV cafés in Happy Days, Seinfeld, Friends, Roy’s café in Coronation Street, the list goes on. So, a Death Café is a happy place to help us talk about the grimmest of subjects.


Is it true that we avoid talking about death? Do we really need to talk about it anyway? I think the first point is true, I’m not sure about the second. Knowing that death is inevitable, we avoid open discussion, often making only oblique references to it. Stand-up comics have an endless list of jokes on the subject. Through humour, they observe death, often very incisively and at times making us feel awkward. But they ask for no reply other than our laughter. Through humour, we escape having to answer questions, either directly or indirectly, free to push it to the back of our minds.


How was the subject of death approached at these meetings? Would they ask questions? Some subjects could be very sensitive. I had three types of death playing on my mind, which happened to people very close me. There was the careless, irresponsible death of my friend in a car accident, the mercifully painless death of my elderly father and lastly, the truly tragic death of my grandson barely one month old.


What sort of weather would bring people to a Death Café? Did it matter? On a warm sunny day in spring, who’d want to be inside talking about death? Or would the sun help lift their mood in preparation. A dull day may bring them in for a cup of tea. In the gloom, they’d have nothing to lose. And who knows, for some the discussion may change their attitude towards the inevitable. After all, there must a reason that Death Cafés are growing so rapidly.


Despite the 9th March being a gloomy day, over 20 people attended. An American came 50 miles by bus to fulfil her need for serious conversation. The age range was as interesting as it was surprising, the youngest being a girl of just 16. The question as why people had come didn’t arise, at least not formally. Nevertheless, I got the impression that for the older people present it was as result of a loss, recent or otherwise. For the younger people, it was all about curiosity. I think they came to observe, to get a feel for the direction of the discussion. If the same people came to subsequent meetings, they may well start asking questions.


Interestingly, by far the majority of the older generation was female. Yet more proof perhaps that the women are more willing than men are to discuss awkward matters. Is this true of today’s younger generation or not, I wonder? There was a more equal mix of the younger generation, so it could well be the case. If anyone has an answer to that, please let me know.


We were first invited to introduce ourselves to the group - if we so wished. I introduced myself as a novelist who writes thrillers based on Near Death Experience. I explained that in my thriller The Trial of Poppy Moon, as a consequence of Near Death Experience being proven true, groups, very similar to Death Cafés, started emerging around the world. There was huge interest in Near Death Experience at the meeting. People were quick to tell me about their own experiences. Some were NDE related; others came closer to the paranormal. These weren’t cases of someone imagining things. They were quite remarkable, starkly real, occurrences.

 

During the meeting, no one offered their opinions or their fears about death and no one asked. Conversation took whichever direction people wanted it to, and nothing was religion based. Does this give us a clue as to the reason for Death Café popularity? A hundred years ago, perhaps even less, it was at the Sunday church service where priests discussed death in a multitude of ways and with a whole range of consequences should we not behave ourselves. Is this the void now filled by Death Cafés? The implication would be that there’s a very real need to talk about death, if only we knew how. In one respect, Death Cafés are at a huge disadvantage compared to a religious meeting. When giving a sermon, no matter how well packaged and disguised, the priest is dictating how people must think and behave if they want a happy afterlife. Instead of being told what to think, we’re now looking for ways of deciding what to think for ourselves.


Whether the meeting would have benefited from more structure, is difficult to say. In all likelihood, it would have, though much easier said than done. A Death Café has no sacred book from which to quote promises and warnings. No one can tell others how to think. There can only be an exchange of ideas to which people can either agree or disagree. Nevertheless, I do feel though that the creation of structure would be welcome and quite easy to create. It all fairness though, it was this Death Café’s first meeting.


Daily acceptance of the reality of death in the community was another interesting topic. One of the Death Café organisers recently set up a business offering woodland burials. She wanted to advertise her alternative funeral service in a local shop using a small leaflet in a discreet position. The owner said he would think about it but, as the lady suspected, he inevitably chose not to display the leaflet. There was a time when such things were common. Now it seems that we don’t want such adverts mingling with the notices for second hand pushchairs, cleaning services and cars fit for the scrap heap. I can imagine some people attending a Death Café not because they want to talk or ask questions, but to listen to the flow of conversation and absorb the thoughts of others. They benefit from just being in a group prepared to talk about death. As food for their own thoughts, they want to just sit and watch the waves without getting their feet wet. These may well be the people in need of greatest help.


Would I attend another Death Café meeting? Yes, I most certainly would. There’s an intangible benefit very difficult to describe.