Living it up at a Death Cafe

Jul 12, 2016

If you had the choice to go out with your wife to a pub quiz or to attend a Death Cafe, which would be the more appealing?

Well, obviously (or there’d be little point in this article!), I opted for the Death Cafe. I didn’t really know what to expect, except that the agenda was to talk about death and also consume some cake and coffee.


So I showed up at the West Hampstead cafe at the appointed hour, to a warm welcome from the twin organisers. We were to comprise a baker’s dozen – apparently a small number compared to more-established cafes. However, there was also a film crew, which I had not anticipated!

Slightly unbelievably, they had found us from Quebec. They were filming an international documentary for TV5 (I think) on life transitions. There are apparently some 3,000 Death cafes across the world, since Jon Underwood started the whole thing off in 2010, and they had chosen us!

People were free to opt out of the filming, and the crew was extremely discreet and professional. Initially, the idea of talking to strangers about death might have been a wee bit inhibiting, even without cameras and microphones in the vicinity, but we soon accepted it.

What actually went on?

The evening was divided into two parts after sustenance had been ordered. (The meeting was free, as this is a non-profit-making organisation, but we were encouraged to spend at least £8 a head to recompense the cafe-owner for staying open exclusively for us.)

First, we sat in small groups, with a facilitator at each table. Nothing was prescribed. We started by introducing ourselves (in the knowledge that all our conversations were confidential). We explained why we had turned up that evening. A number already had had experience of other Death Cafes, but quite a few were newbies like me.

One explained how she had very recently lost a friend, and had had no opportunity to discuss her feelings. Another was a psychotherapist, who was working more with older people, and was interested in seeing what was on offer here. I had come out of curiosity, and to see if, with my funeral experience as a civil celebrant, I might be of any help to others.

The conversation – often punctuated with laughter – meandered around various subjects, and the facilitator did not have to work hard to support us. Everyone was respectful and prepared to listen, and an hour soon passed.

After a break, we reconvened in one big circle. Most of those present were probably in their sixties or thereabouts, and the vast majority were female. We mentioned themes we had discussed separately in groups, and developed them. There were a few silences this time, but the conversation grew apace, and this hour also went very quickly.

What is the point of a Death Cafe?

According to the website,, the objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’. The meeting is a discussion group, rather than grief support or counseling session.

Would I go again?

It was good talking freely about a taboo subject, and I think it was a very useful – as well as enjoyable – exercise, and one I would be prepared to repeat. Every meeting is different, not least because the mix of people is different.

Whether I would have had such a worthwhile evening at the pub quiz is quite a moot point!