“I’m not afraid of death,” Woody Allen once quipped, “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” It’s a sentiment that a lot of us share. Let’s face it, we are a society of death deniers. Thoughts of death are often fleeting unless we are faced with it directly; shoved way down in the list of things to think about, somewhere after root canals and serial killer clowns. However, it doesn’t matter how much you deny death, it’s going to happen to all of us.
Thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, we’re living a lot longer these days, and it’s perhaps this longevity that has sparked a shift in our cultural attitudes towards death. We should be thankful that we’re not living in 18th century England, when the average life expectancy was 41 and death was around every corner. Overflowing cemeteries in cities served as constant reminders that life was short, and dying was romanticised in art and literature in ways that it is not in the modern world. In those times, the end of life was a fascination. Today, it’s more feared than revered.
Enter the goal of a global movement of Death Cafes, whic seek to bring death back into the light. Founded by East Londoner Jon Underwood, the Death Cafe concept is based on the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. Inspired by Crettaz’s ‘cafe mortels’ project, Jon saw the long-lasting benefits of providing a safe space to discuss mortality, so in September 2011 he held the first Death Cafe in his basement.
“There were six attendees, five of whom I knew beforehand and had invited, plus my mum facilitating and me serving cake and tea,” says Jon. “It was nice. It was much more structured than Death Cafes since. When we debriefed my mum said, ‘That was great, but just let people talk.’”
This simple philosophy of allowing people to share their thoughts surrounding death has led to Death Cafes popping up all over the world. Without objectives or themes (other than, you know, death) each Death Cafe involves group directed discussion and conversation flows freely. It’s set up as a ‘social franchise’ and individuals who agree to the principles and read their guide on how to host a Death Cafe are free to do so by posting their own event on the site, using the Death Cafe name and talking to the press as an affiliate.
“It spread fairly quickly but it took us two years to have our first 100-odd Death Cafes,” says Jon, who runs this all voluntarily. “Since then, we have had another 2500. I did have a hunch that it would be popular. It’s not because we’re doing anything especially clever, but rather there is a big social shift happening around death and dying. This is caused by the ageing boomer population, the very visible challenges we’re facing and the decline of traditional institutions.”
For those wanting more than afternoon tea, there’s always Death Dinner Parties. The brainchild of Ruby Lohman and Clare Woodward, Death Dinner Parties offer unique dining experiences where attendees get to listen to guest speakers, who range from funeral directors to religious representatives, to chat about death in its many forms. The pair has hosted several sell-out dinners in both Melbourne and Sydney, with more being added to the calendar.
With her stepdad a funeral director, Ruby says she was able to gain more insight into death than most people.
“For a long time I’ve found it a fascinating topic, and I’m baffled by how little it gets talked about. Clare and I are both really passionate about getting people to think and talk about important issues – in a fun, enjoyable way – and death is about as important as it gets.”
While the duo’s Death Dinner Parties are more structured than Death Cafe, the idea of creating a safe space to share is one of the most important considerations. “We work really hard to create an intimate, relaxed, welcoming environment – and food is one of the best ways to do that. And wine helps, of course,” says Ruby.
It is only by sharing our thoughts about the things we fear that we begin to understand how to make peace with them. Death, it appears, is no different.