Fulfilled living in later life
Making sense of life in Death Cafes

Tuesday 3rd August 2021

Making sense of life in Death Cafes

In 2018, a YouGov survey found that almost 18 million people were uncomfortable talking about death. Now, three years on, a new survey, commissioned by Co-op Funeralcare reveals that three-quarters of adults feel comfortable discussing their funeral wishes, suggesting they may be more open to talking about death. Managing Director, Samantha Tyrer, suggests the nation’s attitude has changed because we have lived through the Covid pandemic, with its ‘tragic and unimaginable loss of life.’ Yet there is a confluence of other influences, too, including the emergence of ‘Death Cafes’ around the world where people, discuss death with no agenda, objectives, themes or planned outcomes.

Our culture has become more open to our sharing our emotions, hence one of the most damaging effects of the Covid pandemic was to isolate ourselves from each other, accounting for sharp rises in poor mental health. At the very time we needed face-to-face conversation, it was denied us. Also, in the past few years we’ve found ourselves considering death as we responded to the repeated attempts to make euthanasia legal by the Dying with Dignity lobby.

If we took Solomon’s advice (Ecclesiastes 7:2) and framed more of our thoughts in ‘the house of mourning’, we would be better prepared for death. We would be strengthened for the grieving process. We would accept that, because of the Fall, death is part of life and learn the things that carry us through. Instead, we are caught up in a ‘conspiracy of silence’ that suppresses all talk of death, even though it’s known that grief is less intense and more manageable when families have made it part of natural conversations.

So it’s interesting to read about Death Cafes all over the world where people have been meeting since 2011 to do nothing more than talk about death, over coffee and cakes. They were the brainchild of Jon Underwood, a web designer, who’d been influenced by Swiss sociologist’s Bernard Crettaz’s mission of ‘liberating death from an atmosphere of what he called tyrannical secrecy’. Crettaz had laid out his manifesto in the book ‘Cafés Mortels: Sortir la Mort du Silence’ (Death Cafes: Bringing Death out of Silence).

The first Death Café met in in September 2011 at Underwood’s home in Hackney and was chaired by his mother, Sue Barsky Reid, a psychotherapist. They then produced a guide to organising Death Cafes and the idea caught on. According to Underwood’s own reckoning, by 2017 there were more than 4,800 Death Cafés in 51 countries around the world. They were held in various places including people’s homes, community centres, yurts, cafes in college campuses and even London’s Royal Festival Hall. You can read a good description of one held in Wales

Jon Underwood died of a brain haemorrhage in 2017, but Death Cafes seem to be continuing, an example being one set up near me in Abergavenny in 2018, which is now being held virtually. I only discovered it when researching for an interview with Premier Christian Radio – had I known earlier, I would have gone along. Because sitting over tea and cakes, listening to others and being able to talk naturally about my experiences with death and bereavement (a son and a grandson dying within weeks of each other), I could have easily brought Jesus and the Scriptures into the conversation. Not in a preachy, top-down way, but as a conversational, ‘this is my story’, along with the others.

I would be interested to know how many Christians already know about the Death Cafes, and are visiting them.

It also makes me wonder how many churches hold the equivalent of Death Cafes. A church I know in Southbourne has a regular meeting for ‘The Afters’, people who have cared for a family member, perhaps a spouse or parent with dementia, and appreciate company as they begin to rebuild their social lives. As well as meeting in the church they do things together, such as going to a restaurant or visiting a local care home.

The objective of the Death Cafes is to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives. There is no agenda, and no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product, or course of action. Church cafes would have a different aim – which is to glorify Jesus Christ by looking at the whole of our lives, knowing that because of Him after ‘putting off our earthly tents’ there is no full stop but more life than we can possibly imagine.

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