You go into your local café and look over to a group sitting at a table, deep in discussion. Some are laughing and smiling, some have a more serious expression, while one or two look slightly emotional. Intrigued, as you go to the counter and order your Americano or cappuccino, you ask the barista about the group in the corner and who they are. She tells you, “That’s the Death Café. They’re here to talk about dying.”
It sounds like a pretty morbid concept but the truth is these Death Cafés are a global phenomenon. The idea originates from Switzerland, where sociologist Bernard Crettaz hosted the first ‘café mortel’ back in 2004. It wasn’t until Jon Underwood – a Chester-born, tech worker who resided in London – held the UK’s first Death Café in 2011 that it really began to build momentum. That first meeting was held in the kitchen of Jon’s Hackney home because after floating the idea to his local cafés and restaurants none were too keen to welcome a bunch of people through their doors to talk about dying – it was deemed bad for business.
By 2012, Jon and his psychotherapist mother, Sue Barsky Reid, had published a guide to starting your own Death Café and they began to pop up everywhere. It would be 2015 that it would arrive here in Perth, with Rachel Weiss, Johanna Babbs and John Birrell hosting the first event at Blend Café in April of that year. It doesn’t sound cheerful but there is often a lot of laughter.
“It doesn’t sound cheerful but there is often a lot of laughter as we exchange funny stories, debate our funeral playlists and share our irrational fears,” Rachel explained.
“The Death Café provides a space where you know that everyone is up for talking about death and dying. There’s no agenda, we’re simply providing a space for conversation. Some people are curious, others want to plan ahead, and others want to reflect on their own experiences around death.”
Indeed, the Death Cafe has proved a success in Perth, with the sixth one now taking place on the 9th of November, 2018. Rachel will be joined by Ruth Burgess, Liz Paterson and Dennis Gardener, for rousing conversations and sharing of experiences.
The main thing that Rachel is keen to stress is that it’s not a bereavement session, where people who’ve suffered a loss in their lives come to receive some counselling or help. Her aim is very straightforward, “Our objective is to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives."
“As a society, we tend to deny death, constantly seeking cures, but we will all die eventually. Sometimes I wonder if people think that talking about death will make it happen! So if we don’t talk, we won’t die?
As I enter my 50s, I find myself interested in death and considering how best to live my life. I'd like to hear other people's thoughts and experiences around death, and how to live knowing we are going to die."
Death is less common now than ever before. Cast yourself back 100 years, where men went to war and there was a high chance they wouldn’t come home, or when families would have more children to compensate for the fact that infants would die more often – death was around us all the time, so of course it would’ve been more openly discussed. Nowadays, thanks to advancements in medical technology and better living standards, people are living longer and it’s not uncommon for people to reach their 30s or even 40s before they lose a close relative.
Maybe that’s why we don’t discuss it and tend to keep it to the back of our minds. And if someone told you they were going to a Death Café, you’d think that it sounded a bit morbid or weird, right? As a society, we tend to deny death but we will all die eventually. Well the end goal for Rachel is that one day, discussing dying will be a more common thing and that the Death Café concept will cease to exist.
“When death is no longer a taboo subject, we won’t need Death Cafés any more, you’ll just be able to discuss it with friends or colleagues like any other subject. But that is not yet the case.”
Sadly, the man responsible for this mammoth growth in popularity of the Death Café – which can be found everywhere from Perth, WA to Tulsa, Oklahoma – passed away suddenly last year, but his legacy continues to live on and Perth’s fourth Death Café will no doubt be another resounding success. If this article has piqued your interest about what the concept is all about, why not pop along for the meeting on the 9th of November to find out for yourself why the Death Café has become such a popular event across the globe.
ABOUT THE HOSTS
Ruth Burgess: I am interested in resourcing people with words, who are planning their funerals, cremations and burials. Also in exploring what practical resources are available locally e.g Hiring coffins, natural burial sites, funeral celebrants etc.
Liz Paterson: I lived and worked for many years in Uganda, where life is much more precarious and attitude to death very different from here. I am interested in how different life experiences shape our thinking.
Dennis Gardener: I deal with people planning for their final future, as an Estate Planner, and help the family to stop arguments and comply with the deceased’s wishes. I have come across most things and am a good listener, so I would like to help others in any and all aspects.
Rachel Weiss is a counsellor, coach and mediator at Rowan Consultancy, whose aim is to help people Live Better. "As I enter my 50s, I find myself interested in death and considering how best to live my life. I'd like to hear other people's thoughts and experiences around death, and how to live knowing we are going to die". Rachel also helps run www.menopausecafe.net
Perth’s fifth Death Café will be held on Friday 9th November from 10AM until noon at the Queens Hotel. There will be no agenda and no formal presentations but instead a relaxed and open atmosphere for people to discuss issues around death. Register your place here.
It’s free to attend but you’re asked to support the café by purchasing a tea, coffee or cake. For more information, contact the Perth Death Café at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out more about the Death Café and its origins, head over to the website.
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