Dying to talk
The Death Café movement has grown since 2010 especially in the UK and US. Though not a physical café, it however gets people of all ages to share their thoughts about death.
BY: Eleanor Yap
The Death Café movement has been growing in the UK as well as the US, but none yet in Asia. Ageless Online finds out more about this phenomenon, which is not a physical café, but rather an event. We speak to the man behind the movement, Jon Underwood (a British Web designer) 40, to find out more about his fascination with death and why the conversation of death needs to be discussed:
Death Cafés are growing in the UK. How many have been held there since you started the movement in 2010?
Death Cafés are pop-ups so we hold them wherever we can. This includes in homes, cafés, festivals and even under tents! So far we’ve had around 115 Death Cafés. Of these, around 50 have been in the UK, 45 in the US, with the others are in Canada and Australia. The first one in New Zealand is scheduled for June 9.
How are they organised? Do you organise them or do other life-minded people download for free from your website on how to hold their own and then hold them?
Yes, we are a ‘social franchise’ so anyone can hold them who signs up to our principles. We offer conversations about death:
- With no intention of leading participants to any particular conclusion, product or course of action.
- As an open, respectful and confidential space free of discrimination where people can express their views safely.
- On a not-for-profit basis, though to be sustainable we’re comfortable with you covering expenses through donations and fundraising.
- Alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food – and cake!
For a country that had a survey by UK charity Dying Matters that revealed that more than 70 percent of people are uncomfortable of talking about death and that less than a third have spoken to family members about end-of-life wishes, this must all come as a surprise for you that people want to have this conversation. Why do you think death is such a tough subject to discuss?
Well I think our society has a strange relationship with death. We have chosen to ‘outsource’ much of the practical work on death to the medical and funeral professions. And also much of the way death is portrayed in news, films, TV, games and music is atypical, and often horrifying and violent. It is almost as if society is trying to make us as scared of death as possible. This makes it quite hard to find the time to talk about it, even though death is something that impacts on all of us.
Death Cafés are simply places where people can discuss death in a safe and friendly setting. They are not for everyone, and are generally not appropriate for those who are immediately bereaved or who are terminally-ill. They are for the rest of us, for whom death is pretty abstract, and only for those of us who feel that talking about death is something we want to do. It is clear that many who attend our events have thought about death a lot and have not always had the opportunity to share these thoughts.
Has your movement come to Asia yet?
I have been in contact with a couple of people in Singapore (including the president of Amitabha Buddhist Centre via Josephine Hunt whom I know through Jamyang, my Buddhist centre). I have also heard from one person in Gujarat, India, who wanted to run one, but none of these have happened yet. I would be so happy to see a Death Café in Asia and hopefully this will happen in time.
I understand you got the idea from the Swiss model invented by sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who hosted “café mortals” in Switzerland in 2004. So what made you decide to take the idea and advocate on death in the UK and elsewhere? What is with your own fascination about death and how does your family feel about all this?
Yes, I got the idea from Crettaz and started Death Café after hearing about this. At the time I was already looking to do some work about death and had four projects in mind:
- Something related to talking about death – and this wish came together with Crettaz’s work to create a Death Café.
- Something to help people organise funerals – I have created Funeral Advisor in partnership with the UK’s Natural Death Centre.
- Something to help people who are dying – I have created Find Me Help for the charity Dying Matters.
- Something to help people plan for their dying – I am beginning to work on this right now.
For me, death is important as it helps me live a meaningful life. When I recognise that I’m going to die the question of what’s really important in life is impossible to ignore. This helps me cherish and savour the time I do have.
My fascination with death is that I personally feel that dealing with death is one of the most important things we can do to make a better world. My family are supportive and I work closely with my mum, Sue Barsky Reid, and sister, Jools Barsky, on this. In fact, Sue facilitated the first four Death Cafés and developed our core model.
Can you share your own death wishes?
The following are important to me:
- That I have made financial and legal preparation so that my family are best placed to deal with my death.
- I am a Buddhist so I would like prayers during my death, at my funeral and afterwards. I would like offerings to be made to my gurus.
- I would like a big party for all of my friends with very good food and music chosen by me.
Your first Death Café was at your house in September 2011. How many people were there and what were some of the feedback?
There were six people who attended. One of the attendees wrote up her experience here – www.deathcafe.com/2011/09/first-death-cafe.html.
How many people are on an average at a Death Café? Are the people mostly ageing boomers? What kinds of discussions are brought up?
I think the biggest was the recent Death Café in Portland, Oregon, US, where there were 61 people – www.deathcafe.com/2013/05/report-from-first-pdx-death-cafe.html – where the largest cluster (30 percent) were aged 65 to 74, 22 percent were those aged 55 to 64 and the rest were younger.
The smallest has been about three people and a facilitator, and it still worked fine! The ideal number is eight to 12 people per facilitator. There is great diversity in age but one thing that is consistent is that most people who attend and organise Death Cafés are female. Primarily, the growth of Death Cafés has been driven by women. I think that this indicates that women are generally more comfortable talking about death than men.
Why do you feel we need to have a conversation on death?
I think that death helps us find meaning. If we recall we’re going to die then it makes us think about what’s important in life. We are given a lot of information about what’s meaningful via the media, e.g. fame, money, power, youth, status and beauty. I think death helps us challenge this and help us find a more personal meaning in life.
Any interesting stories that have come out from your advocating death efforts?
The main story is the massive growth of this work showing that there is clearly a need for this work! At the Death Cafés themselves, there are many, many fascinating stories that are told – but what’s said in a Death Café stays in the Death Café!
You have been called a “death entrepreneur”, not something most people would be proud of revealing, would you say?
Yes, “death entrepreneur” is a bit of a silly title; it is just me being a bit provocative!
In Singapore, death is a taboo subject so besides a Death Café, how would you suggest we have conversations about death?
I think that in general there are two ways to talk about death:
- Give information, plan ahead and do focus primarily on the practical with the intention of getting people to make a Will, plan their funeral, etc.
- Just talk about death with no intention of giving information or guiding people, rather exploring thoughts and feelings about death.
Death Café does number 2, and my other initiative – Dying Matters – does number 1. I guess in Singapore it would be worth thinking about and testing what people might respond best to and then offering that. I have little doubt that anyone investing a bit of time and effort in raising awareness of death and dying will learn a lot and have a significant, beneficial impact. I am happy to work personally with anyone who wants to offer a Death Café in Asia.