Death Cafes Are All about Life

Why some people gather to talk about dying—and what happens during those conversations

Death comes to all. But heaven forbid it be mentioned.

Certainly not over tea and cake.

Yet people young and old are bucking social mores and having oh-so-morbid conversations about d-e-a-t-h—all while enjoying a civilized nosh.

They’re called Death Cafes—these meetings at coffee shops, cafes, libraries, even cemeteries, where philosophy, science, social responsibility and more merge under the umbrella topic: shuffling off this mortal coil.

For people who have never attended a Death Cafe, an obvious question is, “Why would I ever want to?” But for others, the response is more like, “When? Where? I’m on my way!”

In fact, since the 2011 launch in England of the organization Death Cafe, there have been almost 5,000 Death Cafes in 42 countries. About half of those have been held in the United States.

There is, it seems, a small but determined movement of sorts going on, made up of people who are eager to talk about death but feel isolated in this desire. They don’t necessarily have an agenda; they’re not urging people to sign advance directives or plan their funerals or write wills. They just want to discuss this profound thing that everyone will face but that’s largely hidden away in nursing homes and hospitals—that’s surely avoidable through modern medicine—that doesn’t at all jibe with the culture of youth—that’s oh, so easy to ignore.

“We don’t talk about death enough in our culture. We fear it. We deny it,” says Lauren Herzak-Bauman, a 34-year-old artist in Cleveland, OH, who has hosted two Death Cafes. “Death Cafe creates space for people to just explore death in a nonconfrontational way, in a nonjudgmental way.”

For people like Herzak-Bauman, who want to push past the cultural denial, talking about death isn’t morbid or depressing. In fact, they argue that having this taboo discussion has the power to improve not only how you die but how you live each day.

That’s one reason Death Cafes almost always include food. The act of eating is life-affirming—which is a large part of what these meetings are supposed to be about.

What Happens at a Death Cafe

It wasn’t a funeral or a grief therapy session. Nobody was actively dying. But on the evening of July 19, 2012, half a dozen people sat in Lizzy Miles’ basement in Columbus, OH, talking about death. It’s what they came to do. It is, in fact, what they very much wanted to do, as odd as their friends and family may have thought it.

This was the first Death Cafe in the United States, a concept Miles, a hospice social worker, brought over from England. (Death Cafe was started there in 2011 by Jon Underwood, a British man in his late 30s, who’s currently a web programmer and self-described “death entrepreneur.”)

To date, about 2,300 Death Cafes have been held across America.

At the typical Death Cafe, a dozen or so strangers gather at a designated location, likely having heard about the event through fliers, social media or word of mouth. The designated facilitator—often the host who organized the event—gets the conversation going, and attendees take it from there.

Some Death Cafes are one-offs. With those that meet regularly, many people come only once or occasionally. Anyone who wants to can organize a meeting, with general guidance from the central Death Cafe organization.

At Miles’ events, she often begins by posing this question: “What brought you out of your house to talk about death?” At the 30 Death Cafes she’s hosted, new topics have emerged every time.

Perhaps more than ever, Americans are seeking answers about death outside their religious upbringing—or outside religion altogether.

“People might bring up a book that they’ve read recently, or they might be talking about cremation versus burial,” she says. “One Death Cafe, they were talking about people that pull over for funeral processionals and how it’s different in different cities. There’s random topics like that.”

Also often delved into are deeper subjects such as fear of death and caring for dying loved ones. In fact, it’s the more profound topics like these that, in a way, inspired Miles to start these cafes.

In her work, Miles had found that even if a hospice patient had been sick for a long time, the family often hadn’t discussed death and dying and what it meant to them.

“It’s like they almost didn’t believe it would happen,” Miles says. “I originally thought, if I have these events, people will talk about it before it’s a real crisis situation. But what I found was you don’t come to a Death Cafe if you’re not comfortable talking.”

Instead, “people come for a variety of reasons. They may want to think about it existentially. They may have had loss experiences that they want to process. Some people are processing their own mortality.”

The Death Cafe guidelines specify that meetings are not therapy sessions. They’re also not supposed to be teaching sessions. The host is mandated to push no agenda. Event attendees are prohibited from trying to change each other’s views.

Who Attends Death Cafes—and Why

Though anyone can host a Death Cafe, most hosts work in the end-of-life arena like herself, Miles says. Attendees vary. There is a strong contingency of hospice workers, funeral directors and the like, but many people come who don’t work in death-related professions.

For the most part, whatever their day jobs, they’re people who want to talk about death but whose friends and family members don’t. They’ve been told they’re weird or morbid, or they’ve just been ignored or dismissed.

Most attendees are women. Ages vary widely depending on the location, host and advertising methods. At Miles’ events, the average age is 50-something—a time of life when women are often processing both their parents’ mortality and their own.

“There’s a general sense that we have that aging ought to teach us something,” says Brad DeFord, PhD, MDiv, an adjunct instructor for the master’s program in thanatology (the study of death) at Marian University in Fond du Lac, WI. “When you go to a Death Cafe and you’re a middle-aged woman, you’re going not just to learn something about death but to learn something about life—where your aging has brought you to.”

Death Cafes and Religion

In the United States, one community gathering place where the topic of death is traditionally broached is the church or synagogue or other place of worship. After all, religions tend to take strong stances on death—or at least on what happens afterward.

So it’s of note that the rise of Death Cafes comes at a time of religious change in the United States. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey of more than 35,000 Americans found that almost one-fourth were religiously unaffiliated, meaning they were atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” That’s up 7 percent from the first survey in 2007. Most of the unaffiliated are millennials, but percentages have increased across the generational board.

Survey respondents were also more likely to identify as non-Christian than in 2007 and more likely to have switched from their previous religion.

These findings suggest that, perhaps more than ever, Americans are seeking answers about death outside their religious upbringing—or outside religion altogether.

At Death Cafes, atheists and agnostics mix with Christians and Buddhists. Miles’ attendees consistently say that their favorite part of a Death Cafe is meeting and hearing from different people. “Even when you have people who are the same ethnicity and religion, it can open your mind to different points of view,” Miles says.

DeFord, however, cautions that the cafes’ free-for-all approach can lead to pitfalls.

“With increasing secularization, we are really left much more on our own to establish our own rituals and our own beliefs, and we tend therefore to kind of smorgasbord it—we mish-mash it together,” he says. When it comes to rituals, “the nice thing is that there’s no sense very much of right or wrong. But there’s no sense either of whether it’s efficacious.”

The Abstract Versus the Practical

That no-agenda, nonpedagogical environment is one thing many hosts and attendees love about Death Cafe. But some end-of-life experts would prefer at least a little proffered guidance—especially when it comes to practical issues.

After all, Death Cafes have sprung up in the midst of not just religious change but scientific revolutions. Advanced medical interventions bring complicated, difficult, end-of-life decisions, such as which life-sustaining measures should be continued and for how long.

For years, Americans have been urged to think through these issues and to prepare living wills and other advance directives. Janet McCord, PhD, FT, who designed and runs the thanatology master’s degree program at Marian University in Wisconsin, “loves” Death Cafe but nonetheless wishes meetings addressed end-of-life care outright. “I think education is necessary, and Death Cafes [are] one way to get people going down that road,” she says.

In fact, another meetup organization has sprung up in recent years that does focus on end-of-life decisions: Death Over Dinner, which launched in 2013, encourages people to host dinner parties that prompt attendees to think and talk about how they want to die.

Before these dinners, guests are given a list of educational and inspirational resources that the organization has curated. They’re asked to choose five to read, watch or listen to. “I like that structured approach,” says McCord, who’s also president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Over 100,000 such meals have taken place in 30 countries, according to Death Over Dinner.

And then there are Death Salons. Organized by a group called the Order of the Good Death, Death Salons take place once or twice a year. They’re a meld of conference and festival, featuring academics, artists, writers and the like. The 250 to 300 attendees might learn about 19th century British death rituals, the ins and outs of a natural burial, or grieving traditions in other cultures, says Death Salon director Megan Rosenbloom.

On each occasion we hadn’t really been talking about death at all—we had really been talking about life.

Sophie Sandell

Rosenbloom notes that learning about death can even have financial benefits. For example, if people know more about funeral and burial options, they’re less likely to end up in debt out of guilt or ignorance. Like, maybe they won’t buy that $10,000 coffin purely out of guilt. Or maybe they won’t have their grandmother unnecessarily embalmed before cremation.

“People who don’t think about death at all don’t reckon with what might happen,” she says. So when a loved one dies, “you just want to do whatever you think is normal, and you don’t really ask questions.”

All that said, just because Death Cafes aren’t about teaching in the same way that Death Over Dinner and Death Salon are, that doesn’t mean the cafes aren’t about learning.

Before Bill Sipe started going to the Death Cafes hosted by his daughter in St. Joseph, MO, at age 61 or 62, he didn’t think about death much. But hearing attendees talk about their own end-of-life wishes and funeral plans “was very much an eye opener,” he says.

“After my first or second Death Cafe, I actually picked out the songs that I wanted to play at my funeral,” he recalls. This “floored” his daughter, Megan Mooney, who also runs Death Cafe’s Facebook page. “I said, ‘I’ve got my funeral all figured out.’ She said, ‘What? You’ve never talked about that!’”

Sipe, now 65, has been in the hospital a few times lately. During one stint, he realized he could die. “I really felt at peace,” he says. His religion (Sipe is Christian) and prayer helped with that, but also at Death Cafe, “I learned that dying is just the beginning of something else,” he says. “And I really don’t know if I would have felt at peace prior to going to a Death Cafe. I really think that had something to do with it.”

The Future of Death Cafe

Despite their critiques, the experts the Silver Century Foundation spoke to are glad Death Cafe exists because it’s at least opening the door to an important taboo topic.

And these days, the organization is not just doing that IRL (that’s “in real life” in Internet speak). At Death Cafe’s website, people can find local events; learn how to host a Death Cafe; and even submit blog posts, artwork, videos and quotes about death to be featured on the site.

When Mooney—Sipe’s daughter, who has a master’s in social work and works in end-of-life research—took over Death Cafe’s Facebook page in 2013, it had 655 likes, she said in an email interview. Now, it has over 33,000.

About once a month, she asks fans, “What is on your mind today as it relates to death and dying?”

“This discussion usually expands into weeks. There will be over 100 original comments, with other people replying to others’ comments,” she said. “Something new is brought up every time, just like at a Death Cafe.”

DeFord believes this digital expansion is essential for Death Cafe to make a measurable cultural impact. In-person meetups are “so 20th century—so 19thcentury,” he says with a laugh. “They don’t fit with the emerging paradigm of human  relationships in the 21st century.”

However people gather—whether online or in person—the point to organizers is, the topic is being broached.

People who go to Death Cafes often express relief that they can indulge their interest in death without reservation. Afterward, some report less fear of death or increased comfort in loss. Many say they have a heightened appreciation for the everyday.

After all, when you realize that something is finite or limited, you develop a deeper understanding of its value, Rosenbloom explains. Take water, for example. In Rosenbloom’s city, Los Angeles, after many years of drought, citizens now look at water in a different way. They’re more careful about using it, she says. “And when it rains, you want to do a dance.”

Sophie Sandell, who wrote about her Death Cafe experiences for the UK-based news outlet Guardian in 2015, agrees. “When I left that night I felt truly alive,” she wrote about her first of three meetings. “Talking about death, and thinking about the subject, has made me more aware of what’s important for me.”

“It compelled me to go on a songwriting course this summer to learn how to connect my words with music, and has made me feel both more humble about life and more determined to share my work, and to make good emotional connections,” she wrote.

“What became overwhelmingly clear after attending three death cafes was this,” she continued. “On each occasion we hadn’t really been talking about death at all—we had really been talking about life.”

For fans of Death Cafe, meetings aren’t morbid or depressing. At their core, they’re about getting the most out of life—and sometimes, getting a great piece of cake.

Leigh Ann Hubbard is a professional freelance journalist who specializes in health, aging, the American South and Alaska. Prior to her full-time freelance career, Leigh Ann worked at CNN and served as managing editor for a national health magazine. A proud aunt, Leigh Ann splits her time between Mississippi and Alaska.

Leave a Reply