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Death Cafés Opening the table to the most intimate conversation

Stories Jude Bradley
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Death is the final taboo topic. Some people believe the mere mention of the word risks “calling it forward.” Psychologists identify fear of extinction—of ceasing to be—as one of the five basic human fears (along with mutilation, loss of autonomy, separation, and humiliation). 

Death cafés are changing all that. 

In 2004 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz began offering death-curious events called Café Mortels where people could explore the final journey. In 2011, Jon Underwood, a practicing Buddhist and London businessman, took the concept a step further with death cafés, which can now be experienced all over the globe. Underwood passed away in 2017 at age 44, but his legacy lives on in hundreds of events happening every month. 

Death cafés offer a safe space for open discussion with tea and cakes and no judgment. A volunteer facilitator gets the conversation going and keeps things on topic as guests share their personal experiences or ask plaguing questions that would be inappropriate in other social situations. The events are free, and facilitators receive no compensation. 

Richard Davis, who has been facilitating death cafés in several Boston suburbs for the past four years, was approached by various libraries that wanted to host events when he was volunteering with Merrimack Valley Hospice. “It’s important to know these are not seminars or lectures,” Davis says. “The topics vary greatly. A lot of people talk about the afterlife. We’ll talk about belief systems, different ideologies and philosophies, and final wishes. It’s not all deadly serious. They can be lively and animated. [People] come to talk about death in objective terms.” 

The meetings are not grief-counseling sessions, although some people may attend to help manage their grief. They are not based on any religion, though people might choose to discuss their religious views. And they are not places to explore the idea of ghosts or spirit energy, although any topic related to death could crop up. 

The environment is unassuming. Sixteen or so people sit in a semicircle or at a table, and meetings last between one to three hours. The facilitator initiates a free-form, casual conversation with a leading question such as, “What is your most memorable experience with death?” There are tears, but quite a bit of laughter too. Conversations run the gamut—superstitions, aspirations, fears, faith, euthanasia. Not much is off limits when discussing the ultimate journey. 

Somerville resident Alan Bingham, a lifelong health-care professional and author of Dying Well Prepared: Conversations and Choices for Terminal Patients, facilitates a death café program at the local library. Bingham says most books about death describe the journey and pain of helping others but offer nothing about the dying process. “I talk to people about how to prepare, how to say the right things,” he says. “That sets my book apart from anything else.”

Death cafés attract an interesting mix, Bingham says, including people who have lost someone or are currently caring for someone. His groups are usually about 65 percent female. “Women have a sense of agenda, defining care-giving more,” he says. “They’re more exposed to it than men.” 

Bingham offers advice on the death process and how to effectively prepare. He suggests taking a step beyond the usual living will or health-care proxy by creating an ethical will. “It’s not a legal will—it’s an articulation of your legacy, the reasons you’re making the decisions you make. It should talk about your love of family and your love of religion to keep your legacy alive. It’s a lovely thought, actually. It helps with your eulogy.” 

Death is part of life, a rite of passage—morbid only because we think of it that way, he adds. “At the end of our lives, our final act is in dying. It will happen to us all. It’s important that we understand what it means.” 

That’s what death cafés are all about. They help take death out of the shadows. 

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