Why Death Cafes are really important work

Categories: Community Engagement.

Death is something most people would rather not talk about. However since Jon Underwood founded the first Death Cafe with his mother, psychotherapist Sue Barsky Reid in his home in Hackney in 2011, the social franchise has grown to almost 4,500 cafes in 50 countries around the world.

After reading the work of sociologist Bernard Crettaz, Underwood decided it was important to provide a space for people to talk about experiences of death and dying that they might not be able to do elsewhere.

The cafes are not counselling sessions and do not aim to produce a course of action.  There are no themes or guest speakers, as they believe these would make the sessions restrictive and disempowering. However events for LGBT, Muslim, homeless communities, and for younger or older people are encouraged.

There are many different reasons people go, from the practical, like wanting to talk about donating their body to science and ensuring their final wishes are carried out, to the theoretical, such the possibility of an afterlife and how thinking about death influences how we live. However mostly, people want to tell their personal stories. Underwood says:

“Death Cafes are an unusual context for people because we are not great at creating spaces to talk about death. In a Death Cafe you usually have a group of strangers who come together specifically to have this conversation. It can reframe people’s experiences and cast them in a new light. People seem to get a lot out of telling their stories and being listened to.”

Who talks about death

Underwood has found that generally speaking, Death Cafe attendees come from relatively stable, comfortable backgrounds. He explains:

“In my opinion, if you have experienced trauma in your life then talking about death is much more difficult, because it activates a sort of panic reflex. Some groups who are marginalised experience a lot of trauma, for example just through existing in cultures that are racist.”

Since Underwood began the project he has seen many more people talking about death in a way that was not happening before. He credits the internet as having a lot to do with this, however he believes a very big aspect is that people are starting to question traditional fears of death. He says:

“I do think there is a renewed appetite for talking about death and dying because a lot of the major institutions of our society, one of their functions is to hold our anxiety around death.”

Underwood believes maintaining this state of anxiety leads to consumerism. He explains:

“There is a very deep current that runs through society that is connected to capitalism. Death plays a role in keeping people buying stuff.  There is an academic school of thought called “terror management theory” based on the work of Ernest Becker who was an American academic.  Some of the experiments that have taken place on the basis of his work show these links between death and capitalism.”

He cites an experiment where a group of people is shown two bundles of products they might want to buy. One has cheap goods like socks and food, and the other has more expensive items like cars and luxury watches.  Half are prompted with the topic of death in some way, either by flashing the word very quickly on a screen, or giving them an article to read about a person dying. This group invariably chooses the more costly goods over the others.

Creating a project that disrupts this pattern by dispelling fear of death was one of the reasons he started the Death Cafe, however he emphasises there is no political plan behind it.

“That is my personal motivation, I want to make that clear. People come to the Death Cafe with all kinds of different motivations and beliefs.  I do not want people to think Death Cafes have some sort of secret agenda. I am really doing it for social benefit.”

The need for education

A lot of work needs to be done to destigmatise the subject before people can feel more comfortable talking about it. Underwood explains this should start in schools.

“It is not considered in an educational context. In schools we do not talk to children very much about death and dying.  I think that could play a massive role, but there is a huge amount of work around end of life itself that needs to be done because we push death to the sidelines like it is a very hidden phenomenon. People die unseen.”

“It happens in care homes or in hospital settings, most of us die behind closed doors. At the same time death is consumed almost compulsively through our media, games, films and TV, and especially through news.”

Underwood also works with Dying Matters on Find Me Help, a directory to help people find the services they need when a loved one passes away. It has over 30 categories with thousands of listings including funeral directors and church services.

He says:

“Depending on who you are, your needs and those of your family are very diverse. It can be very hard to access the kind of services that you need, so Find Me Help is an attempt to bring them together.”

Finding this kind of help can be very disorientating, so the guide is intended as a starting place. It currently accounts for a very large proportion of the Dying Matters website’s traffic. As Underwood explains:

“Particularly pages like how to comfort someone who is dying.  This shows there is a real need for this kind of information, and that it is really important work.”

For more information visit Death Cafe

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