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What is a Death Café? Increasing Awareness and Quality

death cafe imageAn end to secrecy…

Death Cafes are the brainchild in 2004 of Bernard Crettaz, a prominent sociologist/anthropologist in in Switzerland. He felt that the “tyrannical secrecy” surrounding the topic of death needed to change. His book, “Death Cafes: Bringing Death out of Silence” caught the attention of psychotherapist Sue Barskey and her son, Jon Underwood, a student of Buddhism, who built the idea into the genesis of the first UK “death café,” held in Jon’s house in Hackney, East London, in September 2011.

Increasing awareness in the U.S.

That model has now built upon itself to become a worldwide phenomenon. These are social events that started small and have become very important for people of all walks of life to come together and discuss death as the natural progression of life throughout the world, including many locations throughout the US. The first US event was organized by Lizzy Miles, a hospice worker, in summer 2012 near Columbus, Ohio. By June 2014, the idea had spread to Hong Kong. The objective of the Death Cafes franchise is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”.
In the utmost irony, Jon, who had been in perfect health, died suddenly earlier this year – here are excerpts from his obituary in the New York Times dated July 11, 2017:

LONDON — Jon Underwood, who as the founder of the Death Cafe here encouraged people around the world to discuss, over tea and cake, life, the finality of life and why we fear it, died on June 27 in London. He was 44.

His wife, Donna Molloy, said that the cause was a brain hemorrhage from acute promyelocytic leukemia. His death was sudden, she said; his leukemia had not been diagnosed.

Mr. Underwood, a Buddhist, had already contemplated the philosophical questions of dying. Although everyone experiences it, he felt the topic seemed so taboo that no one wanted to discuss it.
Death has “a magical sort of quality about it,” he said in a speech in 2014.

He quit his job and decided to bring the movement to London.

From the basement of his house in Hackney, Mr. Underwood perpetuated a movement that spread to more than a dozen countries with more than 1,000 gatherings.  He came to learn that the meetings, which began in 2011, were more about laughter than tears. People often talked less about how to die than how to live. These were not grief support groups or end-of-life planning sessions, but rather casual forums for people who wanted to bat around philosophical thoughts. What is death like? Why do we fear it? How do our views of death inform the way we live?

“You know you have a certain time left, and then the question is, “What is important for me to do in that time,” these were the words Jon spoke in a BBC interview in 2014. “That’s different for everyone, so talking about death, for me at least, is the ultimate prioritization exercise.”

Attending a meeting

Each Death Café meeting is led by a volunteer facilitator. The participants include people of all ages, working and retired, who were drawn by Facebook announcements, storefront fliers, local calendar listings or word of mouth. Women usually outnumbered men.
“The purpose,” Mr. Underwood said, was not to “influence attendees or lead them to any sort of conclusion or course of action.”
Cake and tea, however, was a must. “Eating and drinking are conscious acts of nurturing the body. They help mitigate the fear.”
“Mr. Underwood,” said Rosie Inman-Cook, one of the directors of the Natural Death Center, a nonprofit funeral counseling service, “was so aware of mortality that he lived every day to the fullest.”

End of life planning

According to statistics from Dying Matters, 81% of people haven’t written down any preferences pertaining to their own death, so perhaps participating in a Death Café would be helpful to you or a family member.

Get more information here –, and as always, for compassionate information regarding all end of life topics, please contact Patti Urban.

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