It’s just gone 6pm, it is March, and it is dark. People are trickling into a small room off Russell Square. They have their names checked against a guest list and are swiftly ushered over to the other end of the room, where a small table stands covered with refreshments and bright-coloured snacks. They are then directed to one of several large square tables, each with around eight seats. As the room fills up, the din of quiet smalltalk and jackets being undone grows gradually louder. Standard proceedings as events go perhaps – but being a ‘Death Café’, this is no ordinary event…
Based on the ideas of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz (b. 1938), the Death Café is an event model developed by Londoners Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid. It is a ‘social franchise’, meaning that anyone who signs up to a dedicated guide and adheres to certain principles can hold meetings under the name ‘Death Café’ and talk to the press as an affiliate. Since the first Death Café in September 2011 there have been more than 700 meetings and the idea has spread across the world, enjoying particular popularity in North America and Australia, as well as Europe.
As the meeting begins, attendees are invited to introduce themselves to the table and share their reasons for coming. Motives include previous experience with cancer, the loss of a loved one, personal development as a bereavement counsellor, a general interest in discussing what happens after death, and merely wanting to support a friend who is one of the organisers.
The beginning is slow and stunted, but after a few minutes most inhibitions seem to fade. Personal thoughts and worries are openly shared with the table. Most of what is said is optimistic; death being treated as a completely natural and timely phenomenon, something which happens for a reason and so should therefore be embraced with open arms. Views on what happens after we die vary greatly, but there is a definite sense of respect and civility even between those whose views are the most opposed. Indeed, from the outset guests are reminded that respecting others’ opinions is one of the most important rules of the Death Café.
After the event PreparedLondon spoke to Jon Underwood, founder and manager of the Death Café movement. He explained in more detail how the movement came about, what he hopes people take away from meetings, and gives some practical advice for those in the funeral industry:
Absolutely everyone is welcome to attend a Death Café, although be sure to put your name down in advance if necessary.
The next Death Cafés to be held in London are:
May 8th, 2014: 69 Camden High Street, NW1 9HE, 6:30-9:15pm (hosted by Jon Underwood)
June 2nd, 2014: Rustique Cafe, 142 Fortess Road, NW5 2HP, 6:30-8pm (hosted by Panagiotis Pentaris. Read his interview with PreparedLondon)