Jon Underwood has a simple answer to the question ‘what happens at a Death Café?’
“We talk about death,” is his basic point. “There’s no agenda, we don’t have an objective, no point we’re trying to get to.
“Rather we just introduce ourselves, say what the rules are. Then we go round in a group and people say what brought them to Death Café. We let the discussion go from there.”
Death Café is a global phenomenon, run out of a terraced house near Hackney Central by Underwood. The website he administrates features the legend “Let’s talk about death!” and a jolly picture of a teacup with a skull on it.
The ‘Cafés’ are run in sitting-rooms, public libraries and real live cafés the world over, as one-offs or regular events. To use the Death Café brand, and Underwood’s guide to setting one up, you have to agree to the ethical code. “It’s not for profit,” explains Underwood. “You can’t lead people towards any product, conclusion or course of action, and you have to be respectful of different beliefs.”
Since Underwood set up the site in 2011, there have been 1,392 Death Cafés in 26 countries. Underwood estimates 6,000 people have passed through a Death Café in the time they’ve been around. The idea is to get people talking. “The objective of Death Café is to raise awareness and help people make the most of their finite lives,” Underwood explains.
In his view, open discussion means people aren’t ceding power to the specialised knowledge of doctors or funeral directors: “Death Café specifically tries to erode that distinction between those people who know and those people who don’t. It’s not a real distinction because death is a bit unknowable.”
Underwood, a Buddhist, had trained in “spiritual care for the dying” before working at Tower Hamlets Council. Frustrated by council work, he felt something had to change: “I was lacking direction, something came to my mind that I wanted to do some work around death.”
Inspired by the work of ethnographer Barnard Crettaz – who established the Café Mortal in his native Switzerland – Underwood got a few friends round to see how the idea could work. “The first one I didn’t know how to do it at all so I really scripted it, had lots of exercises – writing things down, ceremonial burning: people wrote down what they were afraid of around death, and we had burning of fears, things people wanted to get rid of.”
It was his mother who suggested the more open format which subsequent Death Cafés have followed. “She said ‘just let people talk!’”.
Underwood has recurrently been impressed by the quality of talk which this plan has resulted in. “People generally talk very openly about these things; the façade disappears, or it’s less present. Because in death what people think about you is
There have been some “jaw-dropping” discussions but Underwood won’t share stories. “It stays in the room,” he says. Topics range from tales of the paranormal to the open discussion of fear.
Underwood is clear that the Cafés are not intended for people who are themselves dying or who have been recently bereaved. “It’s a discussion group rather than a counselling session. It’s aimed at people for whom death is abstract.”
His own view of this abstractness is that our culture doesn’t know where to put mortality. “On the one hand we’ve pushed it to the sidelines, it’s quite an invisible phenomenon. On the other, we compulsively consume quite a strange kind of death, through the news media, through films, games, music, which sort of serves to keep death terrifying: it’s hidden in
Underwood is looking for premises for a permanent Death Café, in order to “bring death to the community”.
St Joseph’s Hospice hosts a Death Café on 5 February, including a panel talk with Fi Glover and photojournalist Eleonore de Bonneval, whose exhibition, Everlasting Lives, is currently on show at the hospice.