Why it's good to talk about death with strangers

Started five years ago, Death Cafes have gone global. Siobhan Smith grabs a cup of tea and a slice of cake as she faces immortality head on.

Death Cafes where young and old share their inner most thoughts about their final moments have become a global phenomenon.

AS I push open the door and step into the after-hours glow of Blighty Coffee I scan the room. There are Day of the Dead-style skeletons hanging from the ceiling, and the group of people that have congregated here are, well, something of an odd bunch.

There’s a lady who must be in her late 80s, two girls who look younger than me wearing puffa jackets and brogues and a middle aged man with a palpable look of sadness. A few look utterly at ease. The rest, like me, are ever so slightly bemused. Welcome to the Death Cafe.

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Inspired by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz’s ‘cafe mortel’ events, the first ever death cafe took place in Jon Underwood’s living room, in Hackney five years ago.

“When I first started out, my friend told me it would never work because nobody wants to talk about death,” he says, adding that since that first event he has seen has seen “an enormous resurgence” in people’s general interest in death. “I think part of that is driven by the ageing baby boomer population. They are not ones to be stoic and put up with second best in terms of care at end of life. They want things their way.”

As I settle in to my first death cafe experience, the tea soon turns to red wine and the conversation becomes more cathartic than I could have imagined. I find myself confessing to a group of strangers that I often lie awake at night, paralysed by a fear of dying. I would call it irrational. But in fact it’s the most rational thing in the world. It is happening to us all, after all.

During the break, an elderly lady brings round a sliced up raspberry Swiss roll that she brought from home. Later she tells us that she has paid for and arranged her own funeral, so that her family don’t have to worry about it and she can be sure to get the send-off she wants. It’s moving and strangely uplifting.

Like a lot of people, I have always been preoccupied with death. It flip flops from an overwhelming feeling that I must live each day to the full, to a debilitating fear that manifests itself deep in my psyche. Over the years I have convinced myself that I have a variety of cancers – cervical, throat, tongue, skin, liver – you name it.

A preoccupation with death is something that Underwood understands well. “I have always thought about death a lot,” he says. “It seemed like the elephant in the room to me. That’s why I decided that I wanted to do a project that allowed people to talk about it.

“We are generally very uncomfortable talking about death. We have complicated it and – either consciously or unconsciously – pushed it to the sidelines. We’ve institutionalised it, hidden it, professionalised it.

“I don’t think that’s helpful. At least it wasn’t helpful for me. So I wanted to create a place where people could come and talk about death, just to chew the fat and air it out. There’s not many places where death is talked about at all.”

Underwood feels that our inability to address death turns it into an exclusively sad subject. While nobody can deny that losing a loved one is sad, Underwood believes that “death has the potential to be a beautiful and powerful thing, if handled correctly.”

“Time is passing. You will die,” he reminds me. “Nothing is more certain. So make the best of the time you’ve got.”

I leave the death cafe feeling a mixture of emotions. I feel moved by the honesty of strangers. I feel a reluctant acceptance that I fitted in better than expected. I feel a bit sick from all the cake. But most of all, I feel ever-so-slightly better about the thought of dying.

The next death cafe in Yorkshire will take place at Moor Theatre Delicatessen in Sheffield this Saturday. For more details and to book a place visit deathcafe.com