A Death Cafe is a scheduled non-profit get-together (called "social franchises" by the organizers) for the purpose of talking about death over food and drink, usually tea and cake. The goal of these nonprofit groups is to educate and help others become more familiar with the end of life. The idea originates with the Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz, who organized the first café mortel in 2004. They have since been held in several countries, beginning with France and the United Kingdom.
The death café is not a physical location, but is an event hosted at someone's house or other pop-up/ temporary venue. The official objective of a death café is to help people make the most of their finite lives. Individuals can discuss their understanding, thoughts, dreams, fears and all other areas of death and dying at these events. There have been Death Cafes which specifically create a chance for health/care professionals to talk about death (Miles & Corr, 2015). Generally a death café will have in the region of 12 people gathered in a group discussing death related topics and usually lasts 2 hours (Adler, Remer, Coulter, & Miller, 2015). Tea and cake are one of the most important features to the event they assist with creating a nurturing and supportive environment (Underwood, 2015). The concept has spread due to media attention and because of the topic evoking so many different people's thoughts of what death means (Miles & Corr, 2015).
Crettaz organized the first Cafe Mortel in Neuchâtel in 2004 with the aim of breaking the "tyrannical secrecy" surrounding the topic of death. He has written a book on the topic, Cafés Mortels: Sortir la Mort du Silence (Death Cafes: Bringing Death out of Silence). The Death Cafe website created by Death Cafe founder Jon Underwood, states the purpose as:
At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. Our objective is 'to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives'.
Facilitators have said that there is "a need among people to open [the] closet" into which death, the "last taboo", has been placed, to reduce fear and enable people to live more fully. He has said that at these gatherings, "the assembled company, for a moment, and thanks to death, is born into authenticity." Jon Underwood, a former senior council worker and web developer who founded Death Cafe based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz, held the first Death Cafe in his home in London, stating that "we have lost control of one of the most significant events we ever have to face."
According to one commentator, Crettaz wants to revive the pagan tradition of the funeral feast, "where the living would renew their bonds while letting go of what weighed on their hearts."
The first Paris Cafe Mortel with Crettaz took place in 2010 and Underwood held the first London event in 2011 at his home, subsequently developing the Death Cafe website, generating guidelines with his mother (psychotherapist and Underwood's first Death Cafe facilitator) Susan Barsky Reid, and publicising the concept which took off globally. 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. As of March 2018[update], over 5,900 have been held worldwide. Venues include homes and rented halls as well as restaurants and cafes; a cemetery and a yurt have also been used. Café Totentanz or Totentanz-Café is used in German-speaking areas. In February 2013, a Death Cafe in London was filmed.
Death Cafes have helped to relax the taboo of speaking about death, particularly with strangers, and encouraged people to express their own wishes for after they die. The open-ended discussions also provide an avenue to express thoughts about one's own life stirred up by the death of a family member.
Since Underwood's death on 25 June 2017, Death Cafe is now run by his sister Jools Barsky and mother Susan Barsky Reid. An informative monograph on the movement, its thematic emphases, and its communicative dynamics can be found in The Death Café Movement: Exploring the Horizons of Mortality (2017) by Dr. Jack Fong.
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