I went to my first Death Café recently.
Yes, that is a statement worthy of a double-take. We don’t typically associate coffee, treats, and casual conversation with DEATH, do we?
As it turned out, having cake and coffee in a quiet café setting presented the perfect context for conversations about death, dying, grief, and hope.
What is a Death Café?
The idea of a Death Café is to get people together, to eat cake, drink coffee, and talk about death. According to the Death Café website, the objective of these gatherings is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
The Death Café movement started in 2011 in the UK, and has since spread rapidly across the world, with just a handful of volunteers providing support and leadership behind the scenes. Anyone can host one of these events, as long as they subscribe to the principles laid out in the Death Café guide.
What are those principles?
The big idea of a Death Café is that everyone should be able to talk, about death, in a safe and comfortable way. That means the event is open, respectful, and confidential, and participants must not feel pressured towards any conclusion or course of action. Selling caskets, assigning people to heaven or hell, even holding a guest lecture about grief processes – none of these are allowed. Priority is given to conversation – real conversation among people from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences who will all someday die.
This was my experience:
I heard about Death Cafés quite a while ago, but the first one I could attend happened just a few miles from my home, at the church I attend. When I got there, about 20 people were gathered in a café-style area, seated at several small round tables and munching on cake and sipping coffee. Flyers on each table said a little about what to expect (e.g. “laughter and tears are both welcomed during the evening. They are neither encouraged nor discouraged.”) and emphasized the Death Café principles:
- The evening is to be free from ideology – It is against Death Café principles to lead participants towards any conclusions about life, death, or life after death apart from your own thoughts.
- The evening is to be a safe and nurturing time for everyone.
- Respect for everyone regardless of gender orientation, religion/faith, ethnicity and disability.
- Confidentiality is paramount in all that we say and do this evening.
Our facilitator, Pastor Jim Gordon, welcomed everyone to the event and reiterated the Death Café principles, particularly the part about openness of conversation and confidentiality for everyone involved. Then, in our large group, we each introduced ourselves and shared briefly why we had chosen to attend that evening.
After our large group introductions, we settled in for conversations around our smaller tables. On the back of the informational flyer, we were given about a dozen conversation starters, with the instruction that we could use any, all, or none of them. After about half an hour, we reconvened as a large group and numbered off to form another set of small groups. Half an hour after that, Jim brought us back together, invited us to another Death Café next month, and passed out evaluations for us to fill out.
Of course, out of respect for my fellow participants, I cannot share anyone’s experience but my own. But here’s what I’ll say: I found our conversations to be thought-provoking, supportive, and intense, all at the same time. I began the evening in a rather professional mindset, speaking from my experiences as a hospice professional. That was easy enough. I also found it acceptably easy to talk about my grandparents’ deaths and funerals, because I believe they had good deaths, with beautiful endings to beautiful lives. What was difficult for me was considering my own death and the deaths of my children. Pondering the question, “If you knew you only had 30 days to live, what would you want to do with that time?” brought tears to my eyes as I thought about leaving my young children. Those kinds of thoughts aren’t comfortable, but it was surprisingly safe to be able to talk about those scary kinds of things in this setting.
Death Cafés are not grief support groups. They aren’t counseling sessions, and they aren’t even educational. They are simply a safe space for conversations about a difficult topic, with people who will also die someday. I appreciated the experience, and I plan to attend the next one.