Tea and sympathy? Death cafes embrace last taboo


UK – Attitudes towards dying are shifting – and there’s even an Ideal Death Show coming up. What’s behind the emergence of a new spirit of openness?

On a sleepy August afternoon, 10 people meet in a cafe in Malvern, Worcestershire, to talk about death. Over tea, cake and a flickering candle, the discussion ranges from recent bereavement, past losses, assisted (and non-assisted) suicide, near-death experiences, funeral wishes and the lessons of life from those facing its imminent end.

One of the group recounts the death a few days earlier of her elderly mother: “We did everything right, she died at home surrounded by loved ones, but it was still a horrible death,” she says. Another says the previous day’s second anniversary of his wife’s death was worse than the day she passed away. A woman who has lost two husbands discusses the different impacts of sudden, out-of-the-blue and lingering deaths.

But this was not a bereavement group. There was also talk about how to plan for one’s own death – whether ending one’s life is an act of ultimate self-determination or an unforgivable burden for loved ones – and of the meaning of life itself. The mood was warm, thoughtful and surprisingly positive for what this is: a death cafe.

Since the first event in London four years ago, pop-up death cafes have spread across 31 countries, drawing thousands of people into discussions about what some consider to be the last taboo. The movement is part of a growing openness and shifting attitudes to the end of life, reflected in the emergence of deathdoulas, civil celebrants conducting funerals; alternatives to conventional, religious-based funerals; online forums; debate about end of life care; and assisted suicide. Next weekend sees the Ideal Death Show, a weekend of discussion, practical advice and even celebration taking place in Winchester.

In America, in the wake of the funeral-home TV drama Six Feet Under, a series is in production based on Caitlin Doughty’s bestselling memoir Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, which draws on her experiences as a crematorium worker.

“Overcoming our fears and wild misconceptions about death will be no small task, but we shouldn’t forget how quickly other cultural prejudices – racism, sexism, homophobia – have begun to topple in the recent past,” writes Doughty. “It is high time death had its own moment of truth.”

So why this new embrace of death? Some say it is driven by baby boomers; the generation that dragged sex and childbirth into the glare of public debate is now facing its own mortality and, having witnessed the wretched ends of their parents’ lives, they are determined to force change.

Others link it to the declining influence of the church and the parallel reclamation of death from religion and the afterlife. And some say it is part of a wider shift from traditional forbearance and reserve to public displays of emotion. “Vulnerability has become more cool than stoicism,” according to Tony Walter of the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society.

For Jon Underwood, who launched the pop-up death cafe movement and is raising funds for a permanent death cafe venue in London, it is in part a rejection of the “power dynamics around death and dying. As a society we’ve pushed death aside. Now it’s professionalised, institutionalised, hidden. People worry that they lack self-determination.”

A death cafe allows participants to challenge conventions. “It’s a place of learning and transformation for people who want to speak about death. There are no agendas, no objectives, no guest speakers. A death cafe doesn’t have any answers, and that really resonates with people,” says Underwood.

From the first venue of its kind in Underwood’s east London home, the movement has “just snowballed”, although – as he acknowledges – those attending are predominantly well- educated and white. Three out of four death cafe organisers are women.

In October, Underwood will offer community shares at £50 each in the first permanent death cafe, a not-for-profit venture. “We need to raise over £200,000. We have some significant pledges, but I have no idea if we can make that kind of money.”

Another venture which has taken off is Final Fling, a website that urges its audience to “stay in charge right to the end”. Founder Barbara Chalmers describes it as a “set of tools to help with end-of-life planning”. She launched it in 2012 after she went to “another bad funeral – my very spirited elderly aunt’s – who was referred to throughout as ‘Helen’ when everyone knew her as Nellie. I came away wondering why we do it so badly.”

The site, which offers practical advice and an opportunity to share experiences, is now browsed by 10,000 people a month. “Attitudes to death are undoubtedly changing, although it’s still a ‘Marmite’ issue,” says Chalmers.

The three-day Ideal Death Show is also a marker of the growing openness towards death. It aims to challenge attitudes and present alternatives to conventional funerals, “with a slightly humorous edge”, according to organiser Brian Jenner. “It’s a bit like a literary festival, only about death.” He expects around 300 visitors.

“It’s good to think about, to come to terms with death,” he says, pointing out that a century ago “death was part of everyday reality, whereas now it’s disconnected”.

This thought is echoed by Douglas Davies, director of the centre for death and life studies at Durham University. “There are people in their 50s and 60s who’ve never seen a dead body. Death is marginalised; most people don’t think about it. But when someone close to us dies, it hits us.”

The idea that death should be reclaimed from professionals is driving debate about end-of-life care, with around seven in 10 people telling pollsters they would prefer to die at home than in hospital. It is also fuelling the emergence of death doulas and the demand for natural or woodland burials.

In some parts of the country, funerals conducted by civil celebrants outnumber those presided over by religious officials. With more than 270 sites and new ones opening every year, the number of natural burial grounds is catching up with the UK’s 300 crematoriums.

There is increasing interest among people whose life is ending in being supported by an amicus mortis, a friend in death – in some cases, a professionally-trained doula. In the UK, doulas are more commonly associated with childbirth than death, but the end-of-life doula movement is growing.

Thirty people have completed 21 days of training through Living Well Dying Well, whose director, Hermione Elliott, speaks of a death zeitgeist. “Suddenly there’s a recognition that we have to start confronting this, particularly with the demographic on ageing,” she says.

To think about death is not the same as wishing for it, says Underwood, but awareness of it is fundamental to humanity. “Death preoccupies us all. To face up to it is to accept its inevitability.”

Photo: The Curve coffin, made by Wealdon Coffins, a family-run business based in Kent, UK.