What Happens at a Death Café?

Talking about mortality is increasingly popular -- if the environment's right

Two women talking at a cafe
Openly discussing dying and death at a "Death Café" is growing increasingly popular. Photo © Stockbyte/Getty Images

Actor and director Woody Allen once famously said: "It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens." Generally, most people feel the same way about the thought of their own mortality -- and since they don't like to think about the inevitability of death, then they certainly don't want to talk about it.

Or do they?

A relatively new concept known as a "death café" is growing in popularity.

This article explains what happens at death cafés and their origin.

What Happens at a Death Café?
Despite the off-putting name, many participants describe these events as life affirming, and even life changing, because a death café is a frank, unscripted, non-directed discussion about the subject of dying and death conducted at a "safe" location, such as a community center, church, coffee shop or, yes, even a café.

There is no standard or official format, but, generally, a death café event lasts between 90 and 120 minutes, is free to the public, and provides coffee, soft drinks, and light snacks for participants (or is held in a place where attendees can purchase these things, if they wish).

A death café event typically starts with a facilitator welcoming attendees, explaining how the meeting will progress, and then offering an "icebreaker" that participants will initially discuss. This might be in the form of an open-ended question, such as "Is it better to die unexpectedly in your sleep or surrounded by your loved ones?" or by the facilitator sharing his or her perspective on death and dying based on professional involvement, a relevant experience, or both.

Next, the conversation is turned over to the participants, which is when things become truly interesting. Whether the format involves every participant in the room discussing the same question, people sharing their personal perspective with only those seated at their table about a topic of their choosing, or something else, the conversation at this point usually follows a free-form, self-directed arrangement.

Some people might wish to talk about stress caused by caring for a loved one while others might want to discuss the pros and cons of do-not-resuscitate orders; other participants might ask whether cremation is better for the environment than a traditional cemetery burial while another attendee might propose a "big question," such as is there life after death.

There is no attempt to direct the discussion toward a particular outcome during a death café. Moreover, while the participants come from all walks of life in terms of jobs, religious views, ages, education, economic levels, interests and backgrounds, etc., those attending the event usually understand that a death café is a place where participants can express personal opinions about dying and death freely, confidentially and without fear of ridicule or recrimination.

Death Café Origin
Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz is credited with pioneering the concept of a death café. He hosted the first such events in 2004 -- called "Cafés mortels" -- in conjunction with his research.

He later incorporated the results of his studies and these events into his book Cafés mortels: Sortir la mort du silence, published in 2010.

Soon after publication of Crettaz's book, the idea of hosting death cafés spread. Jon Underwood, of London, England, reportedly read about the death café concept in The Independent, and decided to host a death café in his home in 2011.

In 2012, Lizzy Miles, an American thanatologist and licensed social worker, organized and conducted the first death café in the United States, which was held in Columbus, Ohio. Since then, a growing number of such events have popped up across the United States.

"50 Funniest Woody Allen Quotes" by Josh Winning. www.totalfilm.com. June 7, 2012. Retrieved February 14, 2013. http://www.totalfilm.com/features/50-funniest-woody-allen-quotes/denial

"Never say die? Far from it in Paris death café" by Molly Guinness. www.independent.co.uk. November 1, 2010. Retrieved February 16, 2013. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/never-say-die-far-from-it-in-paris-death-caf233-2121850.html

"Death café." www.impermanenceatwork.org. Retrieved February 17, 2013. http://impermanenceatwork.org/dc.html

"The first Death Café in the USA" by Lizzy Miles. www.kickstarter.com. Retrieved February 17, 2013. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lizzymiles/the-first-death-cafe-in-the-usa

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