What is a Death Café?

This month I toddled along to a local death café I was recommended by a friend. Of course, for someone who loves all things crime and horror, I was immediately intrigued! But what exactly is a death café? Is it somewhere goths hang out, wearing black and planning their demise? Erm, no, not exactly..!

 

What is a Death Café?

The Death Café is a free social event designed to provide a forum for individuals to discuss death in a respectful environment. These events have been held in over 51 countries, but the movement was started right here in the UK by Jon Underwood, who wanted to create an open forum to discuss death.

 

At my local event, I chatted to a celebrant, funeral directors, palliative care nurses and even a soul midwife. Many attendees though, were simply individuals interested to share their own experiences of losing loved ones and to chat about their own funeral plans.

 

The point of a Death Café is that we should not fear talking about death, it should not be the taboo subject in Western society that it has become. Talking openly about this issue which affects us all helps us to cope with and plan for the death of someone we love. It could also serve to help you discuss what plans you might want to put in place for yourself when you die, in order to make things easier for your family or even just to make damn sure your ashes get fired out of a cannon and everyone wears green polka dots just as you wish!

I am only half joking with that last comment… as you will learn in this article, there are A LOT of options to consider doing with your remains!

 

Let’s Talk About the ‘D’ Word

Here in the UK, our attitude towards death is fairly simple:

  1. Don’t talk about it in front of anyone, ever
  2. Ensure your own funeral doesn’t stray from the normal wooden coffin in the ground or, cremation
  3. Attending a funeral is a sad affair, make sure you wear black
  4. Failure to adhere to at least one of the above will brand you ‘weird’ or ‘strange’

I’m not sure exactly when it became taboo to talk about death, though some of the other traditions can be easily explained.

We have been wearing the colour black to funerals ever since the Roman times, when the wearing of a black toga was tradition. This arguably reached its peak during the Victorian era when widows would wear their ‘mourning clothing’ for up to four years! Flowers were traditionally placed around the body to mask any unpleasant smells, but is a tradition that has surpassed medical advances; flowers are now largely decorative or perhaps a symbol for innocence. Burial sites have been marked by a gravestone ever since 2,000BC, with Stonehenge being our most famous ancient burial site.

 

I think not talking about death as a family makes it seem like a thing to fear. If we don’t educate children in schools or we ban them from attending funerals because we don’t want to scare them, we are teaching them that it is something to hide away from, a terrifying secret.

What if we could view all funerals as a celebration of life?

To do that, we would have to openly talk about death so that it dispels the fear of the unknown. For me this concept is the same as talking openly about mental health, so that we face it head on as a society and with an open mind.

 

What Do You Discuss at a Death Café?

You’ll find that conversation flows naturally as people offer up their own stories, but you can also use prompts to facilitate healthy discussion.

One of the concepts I found most interesting at my session was the question:

“Would you view a loved one once they have passed away?”

Before attending the Death Café I would’ve said absolutely not. My reasoning was that this would be my last memory of my loved one, and part of me fears that seeing a dead person would be frightening and give me nightmares.

Talking to a palliative care nurse changed my mind. A lot of people end their lives having been in much pain, some for quite a long time. You may not have the luxury of having only memories of your loved one dancing, running and smiling; for many the last memories are of someone hunched in pain in a hospital bed.

Within minutes of dying, a person’s body is at peace. Any pain the living person felt fades away, and so does the pained expression. The facial muscles relax and it has been said that a person can look years younger. Many find viewing a loved one in this state a very calming experience which can positively help the grieving process.

…What are your thoughts on this?

 

Going Out with a Bang!

What are your wishes for your funeral? Perhaps you already know you want to go out to Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ (the most popular song choice in 2016). Perhaps you want a brass band procession down your street.

Or, perhaps you’ve never really considered it and are open to new suggestions? Take a look at some of the options open to you!

Get buried at sea!

No, not just for Naval personnel, anyone can be buried at sea as long as you adhere to strict guidelines. It is also only possible at two sites: Newhaven (East Sussex) and The Needles Spoil Ground (Isle of Wight).

 

Going green

‘Green burials’ are becoming ever more popular as we become more educated about our effect on the planet. More people are opting to be buried in a biodegradable coffin or a simple shroud. These burials tend to forego the embalming process so as to avoid the use of harsh chemicals.

There are over 220 natural burial sites in the UK, which are properly tended by the Association of Natural Burial Grounds (ANBG) who adhere to a strict code of practice.

 

‘Wow, where did you get that necklace?’

Did you know that your ashes can be made into beautiful jewellery?! Scattering Ashes are one such company that offer the option of placing some of your ashes into rings, earrings, necklaces or bracelets.

And there are tons of other options for turning your ashes into something pretty… you could become a birdbath, sundial, garden sculpture, even a firework!

 

Give your body to science

Have you considered donating your body to science, so that medical professionals can further their research? Your body could be used for practicing surgical techniques, teaching new students about the body or for scientific study. To do this you must contact a medical school local to you, as they will have to come collect your body! Check out a list of schools here.

If whole body donation doesn’t appeal, please consider becoming an organ donor. If you die, six of your organs, corneas, and tissue could help another person live.

 

Over to you

Find your nearest Death Café and pop along to see what it’s like! If you’ve been to one already, I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below!

5 thoughts on “What is a Death Café?

  1. Hi,

    My name is Jools I am the sister of Jon Underwood, who as you mentioned in your article founded Death Cafe. I now run deathcafe.com following his sudden death in June.

    Your article is really comprehensive and it’s great that you have maximised the point that we should talk about death to better appreciate our finite lives. It is wonderful when people are able to talk about death in a safe environment with tea and cake!

    One thing that we just need to make clear is that Death Cafes are very much group-direction discussions (as per our guidelines); if conversation seems to be drying up the host can have some questions prepared, however generally we find that people already have enough to say about death without needing prompts, so this is used really as a last resort.

    Thank you for helping more people to know about Death Cafe, and open up more opportunities for people to discuss death and dying in a safe and comfortable environment!

    1. Thank you so much for getting in touch Jools, and I’m sorry for the loss of Jon, what a fantastic legacy to have left behind! Thank you for mentioning about the discussion, this definitely wasn’t needed in the sense that conversation was flowing freely, but it was a lot of fun doing some quick fire questions towards the end in the group I was in! I have recommended going to the Death Cafe to others, I think it is a fantastic idea and it completely changed my opinion about my own death and what arrangements I might like to put into place, so thankyou so much for your part in organising this movement 🙂

  2. Very good post. I’ve been to a Natural Death Workshop a few years ago, and to a death cafe more recently, led by the Chaplain at our local hospice. Both were fascinating, enlightening and very worthwhile – lots of humour, sharing, opening up about this subject. I visited our nearest natural burial ground with my children, and that too was very interesting, as was our visit to our local crematorium and memorial garden and surrounding woodlands. I bought quite a few books too which I can recommend: The Natural Death Handbook, We Need To Talk About the Funeral, and Get Dead. I’ve certainly thought about and written down ideas for my own funeral. I believe totally we all need to abandon the false taboo we have in this society about engaging with death and plannnig funerals. Also I believe children should go to funerals and it’s very wrong to keep them away. I went to a beautiful funeral recently in our church; the tributes were lovely and I found it very moving. So well done for posting about this and I hope many see it and benefit from it.

    1. Completely agree with everything you just said! Also thanks for the recommended books! It was a great experience going to the cafe, I learnt to so much and it completely opened up my mind to the different options available when I die, I’m going to struggle to pick!

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