Friday, November 20, 2015

Creating a place to talk about death: Death Cafe London

Lizzy Miles and Jon Underwood reflect on the growth of the Death Cafe movement over the past four years and the current crowdfunding share offer to establish a physical café space in London, known as Death Cafe London.

Do people really want to talk about death? 

Jon: We have now had over 2,400 pop up Death Cafes in 32 countries including over 1,300 in the US. The only explanation for this is that there are many people who are keen to talk about death. On average around 60% of attendees at most Death Cafes are new people. In the evaluations we find people really like the events but oftentimes they don’t come back for a while – one Death Cafe gives them what they need. Many others are positively drawn to the subject and seek it out.

Lizzy: Well, certainly not everyone does, but there are enough people that do. When people ask what I do and I tell them I work in hospice, the floodgates open. It’s as if they have suddenly come up for air and they are grateful to have someone they can talk with about death and dying. I have had complete strangers reveal very personal experiences in public places: a craft store, a poker table in Las Vegas, and even in an elevator. As soon as I heard about death cafe, I believed in it. The expansion of Death Cafes around the world demonstrates there is a population out there who do want to talk about these things.


What has surprised you most about the Death Cafe movement?

Lizzy: I had a sense that Death Cafe was something special and that it would grow. What was a pleasant surprise to me was the positive media coverage. I feel the journalists understand what we are trying to do. I did not expect that - I thought any media coverage would be shuffled away under “weird news.”

Jon: I also felt that Death Café had a lot of potential right from the start. I’ve been pleasantly surprised many times – by the quality of the people who give up their time on a voluntary basis to run these events, by the amazing conversations at the Death Café that take place that seem to make the air vibrate, by the constant sense that there is so much more to discuss and the enthusiasm people have for talking about this subject – because for them it is a normal, healthy, helpful and even healing thing to do.


What do you wish people knew about Death Cafe?

Lizzy: There are a lot of naysayers out there, and none of them have ever been to an event. There is the misconception that Death Cafe events are morbid and dreary. The naysayers complain about the word “death.” I don’t try to convince anyone to come who doesn’t want to be there, but I wish the naysayers wouldn’t make assumptions that they knew what the events were like. There is frequently laughter. When I held my first Death Cafe, I had tissues at the ready. I thought people might cry. They rarely do. It would be alright if people did cry, but that’s not the nature of the experience; it is uplifting.

Jon: Just that it is here. For some people the culture that dismisses death and says that it is morbid to talk about it can feel really claustrophobic. Just knowing that there are not just a few but a lot of people who think that death is important enough to be worth focusing on can relieve psychological pressure.



It seems like the Death Cafe movement is going well as it is. Why try to establish a physical space? 

Jon: Death Cafe is going well and we will continue to offer pop up Death Cafes regardless of whether we establish a physical space. It feels like there is a particular interest in death at the moment, which may be due to a range of factors. Regardless of the cause, I feel that talking about death is really important and potentially very useful. We are looking to set up the real Death Cafe to take advantage of this current interest and try to positively change culture around death and dying.


What will the cafe space be like? Will there be coffins for tables and skeletons on the wall?

Jon: No it will be very understated. Death Cafe London will feel different by virtue of its focus. In the context of this kind of environment - things – e.g. flowers, candles and clocks – take on a different meaning. Also for many people focusing on death brings a particular savor to life. As such an espresso can taste especially good if the drinker is aware of the truth that it may be the last one they ever drink.

Lizzy: I can understand why people might wonder about this. There are some events where Death Cafe hosts have used skeletons and coffins in their imagery. Our vision for the community physical space is for it to feel inclusive, warm and comfortable. Somehow, I don’t think the skeleton décor would feel inviting.


Why community owned instead of a not-for-profit?

Jon: Legally Death Cafe London is a community benefit society. This is both community owned and not-for-profit in the sense that shareholders aren’t able to share in any profits we make. All profits would be invested in work to benefit the community. We chose this form as it is very much in tune with our ethos.

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To find out more information about Death Cafe, including where to find an event, or how to host your own event, visit DeathCafe.com.
For information about the crowdfunding effort for Death Cafe London, visit
http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/deathcafelondon/

Jon Underwood is a web designer based in London who has been working on projects about death for the past five years. He is the founder of the Death Cafe movement and DeathCafe.com. Jon is the secretary and executive director of Death Cafe London. Jon established Funeral Advisor with the Natural Death Centre and Find Me Help with Dying Matters. Jon is on twitter as @DeathCafe

Lizzy Miles, MA, MSW, LSW is a hospice social worker in Columbus, Ohio and author of a book of happy hospice stories: Somewhere In Between: The Hokey Pokey, Chocolate Cake and the Shared Death Experience. Lizzy is best known for bringing the Death Cafe concept to the United States. You can find her on Twitter @LizzyMiles_MSW 

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