Thursday, February 14, 2013

Tea, Tasty Cakes, and Death

Because of this blog and the journey I took, I am often forwarded articles about death. About a week ago, a woman I went to school with saw an article in Tea Magazine and said I should read it. It's about Death Cafes, which is something I'd never even heard of, but by golly I think they are a wonderful idea. So being the curious person that I am, I contacted Jon Underwood to ask him a few questions about this movement.

DW: Where did the idea for the death cafe start?

JU: Death Cafe comes from the ideas of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz who came up with something called Cafes Mortels. In Continental Europe there is a tradition of meeting in public places to talk about important subjects. So there is a Cafe Philo, where people talk about philosophy, and Cafes Scientifique where people talk about science. Bernard's innovation was to come up with something where people talk about death.

He organised about 40 cafes in Switzerland and I saw a piece in an English paper about the first event in France. I was immediately gripped by the idea and resolved to offer Death Cafes that very day. There is more about the story of Death Cafe here.

DW:  How long have they been going on?

JU:  Bernard has been organising Death Cafes since 2004. My first one was in September 2011 and was facilitated by Sue Barsky Reid, who is a psychotherapist and also my mum! Bernard wrote a book about Cafes Mortels but it is in French so for Death Cafe we have come up with our own methodology and principles.

DW:  What is the purpose or mission statement of a death cafe?

JU:  It is "To increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives."

DW:  Are professionals involved or can a regular person organize a death cafe?

JU:  No there is no funding for Death Cafe and it is all organised on a voluntary basis. Our first principle is that we are not offering Death Cafes for profit, though we try and cover expenses with donations or funding where necessary. Our other principles are that our Death Cafes are always offered:- In an accessible, respectful and confidential space, free of discrimination, where people can express their views safely
- With no intention of leading participants towards any particular conclusion, product or course of action
- Alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food – and cake!

DW:  What kinds of people show up? Is it typically an older crowd? Are people looking for comfort or grief counseling due to a loss?

JU:  My father-in-law once said to me that "The trouble with this work is that no one wants to talk about death.' He was wrong! All kinds of people show up, not typically an older crowd. We have a really varied group of attendees which is great. If one group is over represented it is younger (20 - 35) women. I haven't been able to establish why this is as yet.

Some people have lost someone and the group tends to listen very attentively and supportively. I would say the vast majority don't come with the intention of working through major bereavement issues (I think the name might put them off). Rather it is people who just want to reflect on one of the most important topics that there is.

DW:  In your opinion, are people more afraid of their own death or the death of their loved ones?

JU:  No idea! Personally for me it's the death of my wife and children that scares me most. That's not to say that I'm not scared of dying - I am! But doing this work has given me confidence that whatever happens I will respond with openness and resilience. I know I will cope. That's really useful!

DW:  Do you provide resources for the people who attend?

JU:  We don't really offer resources, though our website ( has lots of interesting reading. Offering information is important and there are great organisations that do this, such as the Natural Death Centre, Good Funeral Guide, and EvansAboveOnline.

But Death Cafe is consciously not about offering information. Rather we offer people time and space to reflect and discuss, without the intention of them taking a particular course of action.

DW:  How many people typically show up for an event?

JU:  It varies. The smallest is 3 and the largest to my knowledge 22 (this was a magical event - the first Death Cafe specifically for the LGBTQ community).

DW:  What advice would you give to someone who would like to start a death cafe in their city or town?

JU:  Go for it! Death Cafes deliver a lot of fun and happiness for not too much effort. All you need is a venue, a facilitator, some attendees and of course cake. There is a guide to offering your own Death Cafe on our website.

We work with anyone who is happy with our principles and offer support, promotion and advice. Hit me up if you want to know more: underwoodjon [at] gmail [dot] com

Thank you so much, Jon!  I am totally interested in starting one here in Texas.

Happy Valentine's Day!!!  


  1. As always, very interesting post, Pamela. People congregate to talk about everything else, so why not death? :)

    1. Yes indeedy. Tea and cake has been the missing ingredient from my blog. I think I may see what happens if I do this in real life.

  2. I like this idea a lot. I like thinking about the whole notion of death (and I don't mean in a bad way). It occurred to me the other day that I grew up with this whole emphasis on time: tempest fugit, time waits for no man, time is of the essence - those expressions and more were used in my house. But really? really is that true? I could have all of eternity for all I know. I want a Death Cafe in my town (but it would kill me to put forth the energy necessary to get it started...)
    Happy Valentine's Day back!

    1. You can always start the conversation about having one with someone who likes to take the ball and run with it. I think the only barrier where I'm at is a venue. Places of business might not like the idea of a bunch of people taking up space and talking about death. But, you never know until you try.

    2. Hi Pamela,

      Thanks for posting my words!

      I felt exactly the same about venue. It took me 10 months to set up my first cafe. The missing bit for me was the idea of pop-up cafes which can happen everywhere. When someone told me about these I decided to run the cafe in the house, at the table where I am now sitting. Doing the Death Cafe at home allowed me to feel in control and comfortable which was so important. And it was so nice to talk about death in my house.

      All the best,


    3. Thanks for letting me interview you! I'm not sure I would feel comfortable opening up my house to strangers, but we'll see. I'm thinking about it.


Comments are welcome and appreciated!