Death Cafés

Jack Fong

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DEATH CAFÉ TIMELINE

2010:  The first “Café Mortels” were held in Paris, headed by originator of the idea, sociologist Dr. Bernard Crettaz.

2011:  The first Death Café was held in London by U.K. web developer Jon Underwood and counselor Sue Barsky Reid. The deathcafe.com website later became instrumental in transforming Death Cafés into a global movement.

2012:  The first U.S. Death Café was held in Columbus, organized by thanatologists Lizzy Miles and Maria Johnson.

2017 (June 25):  Jon Underwood passed away at the age of forty-four. The Death Café movement continued unabated.

2017:  The Death Café Movement: Exploring the Horizons of Mortality was published.

2020:  There have been over 10,441 Death Cafe events held in sixty-nine countries, on every continent except Antarctica. With the spread of Death Cafés in the United States, there has been widespread media coverage.

FOUNDER/GROUP HISTORY 

The Death Café in its most current form harks back to 2004 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, when Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz [Image at right] held the first “Café Mortels.” By the time Crettaz had achieved his run of facilitating over forty Café Mortels, the first gathering took place in Paris, France in 2010. The United Kingdom’s Jon Underwood, a British web designer and later a globally important figure in the Death Café movement, along with his. associate psychotherapist and counselor Sue Barsky Reid, and his mother, had read about Crettaz’s exploits and launched London’s first Death Café in September 2011. Lizzy Miles and Maria Johnson organized the first Death Café in Columbus, Ohio, United States of America. Across other nation-states, local death activists have launched their own community venues honoring the key Death Café theme: It is okay and healthy to engage in “death talk.” Underwood passed away tragically in 2017, shortly before the seminal work The Death Café Movement: Exploring the Horizons of Mortality, was published. Death Cafés have not declined in popularity despite Underwood’s death. Indeed, Death Cafés continue to grow as there are now many thousands of Death Cafés around the world.

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

As communicated on its website, deathcafe.com, Death Cafés welcome people, often strangers, to gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. The objective of Death Cafés is to increase awareness of death through death talk. Death Cafés seek to help people make the most of their (finite) lives. Cafés are not designed to be a form of group therapy (although catharsis is frequently experienced by its attendees). A key condition of participating in or organizing a Death Café is that the group must approach issues of mortality with no agenda, no objectives (death talk is always ideally open-ended to Café facilitators), and with no desires for monetary profit. In this regard, Death Cafés are always offered on a non-profit basis and held in an accessible, respectful and confidential spaces with no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product, or course of action. In spite of such creative permutations and configurations for each Death Café, Miles and Corr concede that Café gatherings “do not claim to meet the felt needs of everyone, but they do obviously speak to the concerns of those who join in them” (2017:162). Based on ethnographic fieldwork, Fong (2017) reports that even religious attendees, many from diverse Abrahamic faiths, do not proselytize. Death Cafés are a sort of benevolent purgatory of percolating existential cues from all walks of life. They are filled with wisdoms on mortality that release themselves through death talk.

The chief aim of Death Cafés, as an existential and transformative social movement, is to contest the taboo that surrounds and constrains death talk. This taboo is seen to delimit, if not suppress, one’s ability to fully self-actualize existence through an acceptance of one’s mortality in all its nuances. Whether through the interpretations of religion and/or spirituality, the legalities and logistics of preparing for death, the framing and vulgarization of death by modern popular culture, and invariably, fear of death, there is an underlying view that a “good death” is an appropriate social ideal. That ideal can be realized through unfettered community-oriented dialog where attendees attempt to author their own comprehension and trajectory of living that acknowledges their mortality. Although the aforementioned themes are but a few of the many narratives conveyed by Café attendees at their respective gatherings, the foundations and social dynamics of Death Cafés are based on creating dignified communicative space where discussions about the profundities of mortality can be made to promote a healthier outlook on one’s life and death. As such, Death Cafés are designed to avoid pandering to industry or private interests, to “never do it for cash” (Magra 2017). Attendees cannot advertise or promote their operations in the death care industries, nor can proponents of faith attend to proselytize. There is a concerted attempt to engage in social leveling. Indeed, the elimination of social statuses (like end of life itself) becomes the ethos embraced by Café attendees and supporters. By informally gathering with strangers to talk about all issues pertaining to death and dying, from the most challenging and personal to ideals and convivial speculations of what constitutes a good life and death, Death Café attendees appear to be personalizing, if not authoring, their own crucial narratives and expectations regarding end-of-life issues. Café attendees are essentially preparing for death by exploring cues that will allow them to live at their fullest expressions, be they inspired by pain or profundity. Attendees sense their individual life stories, when compiled, possess a formidable momentum that can contest the stigma around death talk.

Many Café attendees are enthusiastic about encountering cues they are on the verge of understanding. In one exploratory study, for example, Café attendees, in the presence of strangers, confront death and dying outside of everyone’s cultural scripts: chaplains sit across from shamans, near-death survivors sit across from a member of the Baha’i faith and a former Christian Scientist, moms still grieving the loss of their children sit across from widows and mediums (Fong 2017). All unpack in ways that seek and achieve intersubjective agreement if not mutual consensus on a variety of death and dying themes. Because Death Cafés have “no ideology or agenda for the gathering” according to thanatologists Lizzy Miles who started the United States’ first Death Café in Ohio with her associate Maria Johnson in 2012, attendees have the privilege of seeing a unique cross section of society on their own terms as they focus on that final facticity of life: our mortality (Miles and Corr 2017). Death Cafés, because of such a magnanimous acceptance of our shared humanity, are thus viscerally accepting of narratives from religion, religious practices, atheistic practices and existential spiritualities in ways that do not promote nor endorse any one doctrine. For example, Fong (2017) recounts how at one of the Death Cafés a funeral home director was engaged in deep conversation with a person who had a near-death experience, while a mother who had lost her son to suicide and a cancer survivor were listening intently. In another venue, a physician had opened up his home to Café attendees whilst disclosing during dialog with fellow Café attendees that he had enrolled in a cryonics program.

A study of Death Cafés in the Los Angeles area in California, United States, qualitative data reveal that attendees are primarily concerned about three main institutions of society that are seen to detract one from engaging with mortality: the “trinity” of the media, market, and medicine (Fong 2017). This trinity is seen to vulgarize mortality through shock value and sensationalism (media), through the commodification of death (market), and the dehumanizing of death and dying in hospital settings (medicine). [Image at right] Given the global reach of Death Cafes, one can deduce that other events around the world will offer alternative readings of mortality in ways that continue to erode the walls of taboo surrounding death talk.

The significance of the Death Café project is how the movement aims to be as expansive as possible through the notion of a shared humanity that is needed to understand our human condition, one that reaches its crescendo with our mortality. It is a movement that seeks to inject meaning and purpose to cushion our trajectory toward end of life. In this regard, it is a movement that aims to confront the emptiness of nihilism.

The importance of introducing new cues for navigating one’s journey through life is significant not least because reason and rationality, expected as how institutions of modernity should be administered, have reached their limits in illuminating depth and content for the self. The nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche felt these concerns viscerally and envisioned an exemplary human being that, according to Richard Schacht of Nietzsche’s  Human, All Too Human, would still be able to exhibit the acumen and tenacity to forge ahead with purpose and meaning through the vagaries of life and living. Without mindfulness of one’s purpose, the void of nihilism takes hold and defeats the actor (Fong 2020). For Nietzsche, mindfulness about our relationship to nihilism allows us to stare into the valley of nihilism and awake from what has been a deep slumber, one instilled and reinforced by modernity’s clutter of cultural scripts and other forms of ideological domination that seduces us into believing in our invincibility (and depending on the hubris of certain perspectives) our immortality. Death Cafés then, if seen from an existential perspective, is a social movement that aims to conquer nihilism that invariably arises when actors begin to “take inventory” of their lives toward end of life, all undertaken by a community of strangers with one purpose: to bond over confrontations and address of our mortality. In this regard, Death Café events articulate themes of spirituality and religiosity in ways that do not sloganeer any one perspective, in ways that do not give pride of place to one doctrine.

For some scholars, nihilism contains objective historical content. Donald A. Crosby, for example, observes that nihilism can be seen as trends in the thought of our times. Even though the roots of nihilism lie “in the beginning of the modern era,” its salience “in the last one hundred years and particularly in the period since World War I” is most pronounced in cultural expression (Crosby 1988:5). As content informing a means of conceptualizing the world, Crosby describes existential nihilism as a view that “judges human existence to be pointless and absurd” (1988:30), a view that sees life as leading to nowhere and amounting to irrelevance, to nothing. For Crosby, “it is entirely gratuitous, in the sense that there is no justification for life” (1988:30). With such a view, the only feasible goal for anyone who understands the human condition is the abandonment of all goals and the cultivation of a spirit of detached resignation while awaiting life’s last and greatest absurdity, an annihilating death that wipes us so cleanly from the slate of existence as to make it appear that we had never lived (Fong 2020).

Some of Nietzsche’s contemporaries, like Leo Tolstoy, added to this dismal state a rather unphotogenic and cynical view of nihilism, one that Death Café attendees attempt to transcend:

I could give no reasonable meaning to any single action or to my whole life. . . . Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come . . . to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. . . . One can only live while one is intoxicated with life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud and a stupid fraud (cited in Crosby 1988:31).

Death Cafés then, in the final instance, are community projects that aim to identify and remove the conditions that lead to such apathy and hollowness in how one assembles their spiritual, metaphysical, and even scientific framework of their mortality.

RITUALS/PRACTICES

The common practice for those interested in attending Death Cafés is for them to first visit its website at deathcafe.com. The website offers an interactive map that situates the thousands of Death Cafés located all around the world. [Image at right] Each Death Café on the interactive map offers an avatar that can be clicked. Information about the specific Death Café will be detailed.

From this point onward, the interested party contacts the host directly for further information. What must be considered as well is the power of informal channels in promoting Death Cafés. Social media is certainly an important conduit by which Death Café events are announced and there will invariably be attendees that visit Café events based on informal communication channels, such as social media. Moreover, under the activism of Jon Underwood and his acumen for working with online platforms due to his software development background, one can convincingly argue that it is Underwood’s promotional efforts that have been instrumental in spreading the Café message around the world in ways that are expedited, immediate, and reflective of its capacity to function as a global transformative and existential movement.

At its outset in Paris and under the guidance of Dr. Crettaz, Death Café venues were frequently held, not surprisingly, at coffee shops. Yet such a venue has become a cliché in a fortuitous way: around the world there are now a myriad of other contexts where Café events are being held. Café hosts in this regard have tremendous autonomy. Aside from venues at coffee shops, many events have taken place at churches, temples, restaurants, and even homes offered up by particular residents who desire to engage with the Café community. Around the world, Death Cafes are likely held at even more “exotic” locales given the decentralized approach toward death talk. Even in the United States, there are unique venues where Café meetings are held. Fong notes how during one of his research visits to a Death Cafes, for example, one of Los Angeles’ most prominent hosts/facilitators, Betsy Trapasso, MSW, held an event at Joshua Tree National Park, a popular national park and desert ecosystem located near Southern California. The diversity of how to configure Café contexts are many and are dependent upon the preferences of the host/s and their attendees.

Regardless of locale, however, there are some key patterns that begin a Café event. Café attendees, upon registration, usually arrive early and engage in an exchange of pleasantries with fellow attendees. Café attendees arrive enthusiastic and intrigued; others arrive with much anxiety and nervousness. For the latter group, the surfeit of warm smiles and sense of community ultimately establishes a welcoming atmosphere of each gathering. Some events welcome dozens. In such situations, Death Cafés are usually held at restaurants, community centers, or places of worship, with large groups assigned to specific tables. Other Cafés are intimate where the host/s prefer but a small group of no more than a dozen visitors, with some events attended by half a dozen attendees. At the scheduled start time, the Café host/s will introduce themselves to those gathered and explain the purpose of Death Cafés. Attendees are then asked to introduce themselves. Although some individuals choose to disclose their occupation, those who do not are still treated inclusively. Participants understand that detailed identification is unnecessary and persons are asked to identify themselves by their first names only. Many employ such an opportunity to also state the purpose for their visits, and it is in these instances that the sublime “beauty” of death talk emerges amid the relaxed clanking of silverware on glass, greetings that serve to break the ice, and the eventual sitting down of lingering Café attendees with their plate of finger foods, all expressing a subdued excitement that defines the mood for the event.

After the Café facilitator introduces the event and the attendees, the conversations often begin, ironically, with silence. This is to be expected of course as some attendees have not yet finished “sensing” one another with nervous alacrity, while others wonder who will be the one to eventually break the ice to commence death talk. Inevitably, an individual unafraid of this newfound freedom will start the night’s conversation. The floodgates then open for others, and death talk is underway. Following from this moment, other participants convey their experientials about mortality, theories are shared, lamentations receive validations. Grieving persons are exposed to alternative motifs and approaches toward conceptualizing mortality, whatever these themes and/or approaches may be. Such a formula immediately “levels” status and social rank, allowing for rich cross-cultural narratives from all walks of life to emerge uncluttered by social distinctions. Soothed by good foods, pastries, and beverages such as coffee and tea, participants at Death Café discuss their frameworks for their own mortality as a community. The community gathers respectfully at restaurants, places of worship, or homes that welcome the public in ways that establish communal solidarity, in ways that celebrate our shared humanity. As discussions flow, the host/s of the Cafés tend to defer to emergent themes, group dynamics, and discussions, allowing them to surface with minimal interruption. In many instances when such a communicative flow is established, attendees either synchronize with the narratives and continue the dialog; they welcome the next speaker to begin a new discussion if a former speaker has concluded sharing their views and the experientials that led them toward a confrontation with mortality. There are always disagreements, but they are dignified and respectful.

The social environment is relaxed, often deeply moving, filled with profundities, and as noted in the preceding paragraphs, frequently lighthearted. Death Cafés are not depressive environments. Moreover, death talk is rarely ever macabre due to its welcome of humor. Lighthearted moments do not cheapen dialogic dynamics between attendees (Fong 2017). Indeed, perfectly timed quips often punctuate the dynamics of discussion, intermittently lightening up an otherwise heavy dialog. Because humor has an intermittent place in bereavement, grief, and mourning if cultural sensibilities are understood by participants who confront death episodes, it can function as a social lubricant. DeSpelder and Strickland (2009) describe this as the “oil of society.” Sensible humor in the context of death generates sentimental cohesiveness for a bereaved community. However, in spite of the many lighthearted moments at Café events, the majority of exchanges are serious and deep due to the varying degrees of anxieties exhibited by some Café attendees. Café dialog exudes a level of depth that draws attendees together. This occurs, if not in terms of having a meeting of the minds, then in terms of a total corporeal commitment toward the speaker’s speech utterances (i.e., body language and orientation is directed toward speaker, eye contact is sincere, as are distant gazes by attendees taken by very personal matters). Nonetheless, the diverse processes of confronting mortality at Death Cafés create a community that helps attendees cope with bereavement, grief, and mourning, even if participants are strangers to one another. Indeed, the vast majority of attendees will never again see one another again once the Café concludes.

ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP

Jon Underwood’s untimely death at the age of forty-four from a brain hemorrhage resulting from acute promyelocytic leukemia did not stifle the movement’s growth. In the London region, Underwood’s associates and family members have continued his legacy. As the Death Café is a decentralized social movement that has now found embeddedness in many cultures around the world, its deliberate configuration of the movement without a centralized governing “body” is what nourishes unscripted and non-perfunctory social relations at the local level in ways that align with cultural sensibilities. Although Death Cafés around the world make attendees feel at ease due to its quasi-dining experience, an advantageous strategy for people who might want to enjoy a few bites and sip their drinks while each of their new friends is in the process of conveying their stories, there is much diversity in how each venue can be organized. In this regard, an explicit lack of a leader or a group of leaders has never detracted from the movement’s purpose. Instead, the facilitation and time management of the event, the size of the event, how frequently to hold an event, are entirely up to the Death Café host/facilitator. Moreover, the continuing presence of a Death Café website that promotes the ethos of death talk has allowed any interested party to continue the movement in a manner that remains true to the Death Café: to create the conditions “on the ground” that will allow for unfettered death talk that celebrates our shared humanity at the local and global level. In this regard, Death Cafés have found a rootedness in communities that will have lasting implications for many years to come, and all retain a center of gravity that approximates some of the following conditions, even though there is much diversity in how each venue can be organized:

Café gatherings are approximately two to three hours long. They are usually organized during late afternoons or early evenings (with time management of Death Cafés entirely up to the sensibilities of the host/s).

The size of each Death Café is variable. Some events have less than half a dozen participants while most have at least ten. Still, other Death Cafés may have many dozens, requiring attendees to be divided into different groups seated at different tables.

Depending on the preferences of the host, Café events can be held repeatedly at one venue or vary in terms of venue location.

One of the most popular hosts of Death Cafés in the Greater Los Angeles Area during Fong’s research was Betsy Trapasso, MSW. Her view of structuring Death Cafes embodies the finesse that different hosts/facilitators exhibit in organizing an event. She notes how:

Most people will have them in the same place, and hold a Café the first Monday of every month, at the same time. I prefer going out and trying all these different locations—where nothing is set, which is much harder work but I like it. You just don’t know what you’re going to get. I’m one of the people that limit the attendance to 10. You feel like you get to know each other more (Fong 2017:24).

Betsy further adds:

I never have large but only small groups. There are Death Cafés that have 60 people, some with 40 people. I really like the feel of one small, intimate group, that’s why I limit it to 9–10 people otherwise you know that one table and you’re looking at another other table and they are laughing and your table is way boring but you are trying to listen to what the other people are saying. But this way it is nice, small, and intimate and everyone can talk before and after over the potluck. So this is just in my opinion, so that you’re not distracted with the chatter in the background (Fong 2017:24).

Given the popularity and proliferation of Death Cafés globally, new trajectories of organization will inevitably emerge. In this regard Death Cafés remain open-ended in their progress. The varying procedural details that engage audiences with death talk about their own mortality become insignificant issues given the profundities that ultimately emerge at all Death Cafés.

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

Death Cafés have few issues and challenges. Those that arise will take place at the most localized venue. Given that Death Cafés do not report their dynamics to anyone at any locale or on any website, or to any centralized environment, there is not the weight of an overarching bureaucracy that imposes systemic demands on the movement. Death Cafés are community events designed to bring people together magnanimously (with foods and drinks provided, often on a potluck basis); overhead costs such as those affecting business operations do not exist. That said, there remains one issue: [Image at right] whether or not interested members of civil society can actually find a venue to attend. Death Cafés, if they have charismatic and popular hosts, will draw interested attendees from distant locales. One outcome of such behavior is that certain Cafés will have waiting lists for interested visitors, and some wait times can span a month or more. However, the vast majority of Cafés operate on a more intimate level, with manageable numbers of attendees, all of whom are made to feel welcome in this brief, almost sectarian-like gathering that seeks the ideal of a good death: to die peacefully with dignity, meaning, and acceptance.

IMAGES
Image #1: Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz.
Image #2: Fast food caskets at Costco.
Image #3: Death Café venues around the world, circa 2020.
Image #4: A Death Café poster.

REFERENCES**
**
Unless otherwise noted, the material in this profile is based on Jack Fong, The Death Café Movement: Exploring the Horizons of Mortality. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.

Crosby, Donald A. 1988. The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Deathcafe website. “Welcome to the Death Café.” Accessed from http://deathcafe.com/ on 19 December 2015.

DeSpelder, Lynne Ann, and Albert Lee Strickland. 2009. The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Fong, Jack. 2020. Employing Nietzsche’s Sociological Imagination. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Fong, Jack. 2017. The Death Café Movement: Exploring the Horizons of Mortality. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Magra, Illiana. 2017. “Jon Underwood, Founder of Death Movement, Dies at 44.” New York Times, July 11. Accessed from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/11/international-home/jon-underwood-dead-death-cafe-movement.html on 23 February 2018

Miles, Lizzy, and Charles A. Corr. 2017. “Death Café: What Is It and What We Can Learn from It.” Omega—Journal of Death and Dying. 75:151–65.

Publication Date:
14 April 2020

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Updated: — 1:06 pm

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