Ballad of the Death Café

April 3rd, 2014

by Sally Penn

When I was first approached by a local Funeral Arranger, Geoff Cheesman, who asked if I would be interested in hosting a Death Café, my initial response was “a what?!”He then went on to explain the basic idea of inviting people to a venue, preferably where coffee and cake is on hand, where they could talk about anything to do with death and dying.

The idea originally came from Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist and was picked up by Jon Underwood who held the first death café in the UK at his London home in September 2011.

As we all know, death and dying can be difficult subjects to discuss. For many, these topics are avoided until it’s absolutely necessary.  Still others have no choice.  They may be diagnosed with a terminal illness,  or be caring for an elderly relative.  But death is a subject which we will have to think about sooner or later.

And, slowly, the idea is losing its stigma.  Which is why the Death Café movement is gaining ground.

Since Jon held that first death café there is a growing awareness of what they are, why they take place and what you can expect from attending one.

While the number of death cafés being held is steadily rising these are still mainly in the south of England and so the thought of bringing the idea to the North of England really appealed to me – “how exciting” one friend exclaimed when I told her about it “ to be in on the start of something – a pioneer!”

Well, I’m not sure about pioneering (leave that to Rochdale! Ed).  Other people are rapidly following suit but our first Pendle Death Café held in the market town of Colne last December was (I believe)  the first in East Lancashire.  Death Cafes can now be found in Liverpool, and Stockport also saw its first café recently.

Our main concern when we arrived to host our first café was whether anyone would actually turn up! Several hours later nine of us decided it was time to call it a day after a truly enlightening evening.

After introducing himself and explaining the basic concept of the Death Café, Geoff invited everyone to introduce themselves and tell us (if they wished) why they’d decided to attend.

It’s hard to describe how fascinating this was.  As the evening unfolded I kept taking a look around to see everyone engrossed in discussing this much feared topic.

People from all walks of life were there, in addition to myself and Geoff our number included: a bereavement counsellor, a retired C of E Minister, a MacMillan Nurse, an A level student, a retired Nurse – oh and a pagan high priest!

Everyone there had experienced the loss of a loved one.

Our second café proved even more popular with fifteen people attending for all manner of reasons.  A few had been to the first café, several ladies turned up just to see what actually “happened.” A few people wanted to share their own experience of loss and another celebrant came with the idea of starting her own Death Café in her local area.

This time, after brief introductions, we spilt into groups where topics ranged from the impact of bereavement on individuals and families, living wills, euthanasia to pre planning your own funeral and what a Humanist or non-religious funeral entails (naturally!)

After each café we asked everyone if they would fill in a feedback questionnaire and were delighted to read everyone felt they had benefited from attending.  In addition they all said they would come again and encourage others along too.

When I tell people about the death café, one question I’m frequently asked is “isn’t that rather morbid?”

My – honest – answer is “no – not at all”. There were, naturally a few tears. There was much serious discussion.  However, at various moments throughout the evening, I sat back in my chair, cup of tea in one hand and huge slice of cake in another and realised I was listening to laughter!

This, for me, is what a death café is all about.  It’s not bereavement counselling – it’s not for ghouls – it’s simply a movement aimed at provided a confidential and safe environment where people are encouraged to talk freely about their experiences, hopes and fears.

Death shouldn’t be a dirty word – so why not help break the taboo?

Just as I found my work as a celebrant to be life changing, uplifting and rewarding – so too is being involved in hosting a Death Café.
So why not try it and help spread the word. Go along to your nearest Death Café or if there isn’t one – well, you could always set up your own!