Death Cafés are part of a growing worldwide movement to encourage people to talk about death. Mark Taubert, Clinical Director Palliative Medicine and Honorary Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University School of Medicine, Cardiff, Wales, UK, joined forces with colleagues to set up a Death Café in the Welsh Valleys.
‘Welcome to Death Café’, said the website when I clicked on the link. I’d heard about Death Cafés online and in the news but had never been to one. When a colleague, Maria Parry, a lecturer at the University of South Wales, suggested that we host one, I was unsure where to start. Luckily, Maria and her colleague Claire were full of ideas, and the Death Café website holds ample information on how such events are run. In fact, one of the ground rules is: relax, not too many rules, not too much structure, just let the conversation flow.
Death Cafés – how they started
Death Café is a ‘social franchise’. In 2010, Jon Underwood decided to develop a series of projects about death, one of which was to focus on talking more about it. The first event in the UK was held in Jon’s house in east London in September 2011. It was facilitated by psychotherapist Sue Barsky Reid, Jon’s mother. They went on to offer Death Cafés in various places: cafés, people’s homes, cemeteries, yurts and even London’s Royal Festival Hall.
Death Cafés spread quickly across Europe, North America and Australasia. As of today, more than 9,000 Death Cafés have been held in 65 countries since September 2011. What happens there? People (often complete strangers) talk openly about death, dying and grief.
Starting our own Death Café in the Welsh Valleys
We got a team of volunteers together very quickly. Coffee and death seem to be good conversation starters, so combining them makes sense. Velindre Cancer Centre and the Marie Curie charity were both keen to be involved. Deciding location was tricky but the idea of a Death Café was so intriguing to the University of South Wales, that they offered us one of their campus cafés in the South Wales valleys. For free!
We quickly devised a coffee and cake rota, and who would buy or bake what. Another challenge was creating a poster with a good logo! We got there in the end, with the help of a skilled family member who fashioned a skull into a frothy coffee. That poster and image was then shared on social media and in the local area, including libraries, GP surgeries and community halls. Claire Churcher, another lecturer, made an absolute cracker of a cake. And a local journalist wrote an insightful article about death and invited readers to join the forthcoming event.
When the day came, local rugby legend and television presenter, Phil Steele, was keen to join us. We had press coverage from national newspapers, and also BBC Radio Wales. The room was full with people aged from 20 to 80 plus. We had a brief introductory session and the conversation flowed. A Facebook Live session was set up by Marie Curie charity (with thanks to Rachel Moses-Lloyd) and there was lots of Twitter activity too because the event coincided with Dying Matters awareness week.
What mattered most?
But it was the personal stuff – the real, spoken interaction – that mattered most. We all exchanged stories from our lives that we found important. One lady talked about the deaths of her husband and her mother, both had been vastly different experiences. Phil Steele (pictured above) brought out his guitar and sang a song about grief. People cried, people laughed, and there was a real shared moment, it felt special. In the break, we drank coffee and ate cakes.
And then the conversation started flowing again. Just like that, with no starting whistle sounding off. I had thought it would require a lot of facilitation to get the conversation going, but far from it. We found that everyone launched into the conversation freely, and at the end of three hours, people were still chatting.
We got very good feedback about the event later, so much so that we are now planning the next event. If you are interested, take a look at the Death Café website to see if there is a planned event near you. And if not, just set one up.
- Death Café website includes a how-to guide on setting up your own Death Café. (Tip: Follow link to Hold a death café)
- Follow Mark Taubert on Twitter @DrMarkTaubert.
Next week on the EAPC blog, Imogen White describes her first visit to a new Death Café in her local village in England.