A Matter of Mortality

Death cafés help people make the most of life
Photograph by Josh Scott

On a blazing July morning at a Panera Bread in Ann Arbor, Diana Cramer passes a roll of masking tape and a black Sharpie to each of the guests filtering through the double doors. “Write your name on the tape and stick it to your shirt,” she says. “Then we can do proper introductions.”

When the handful of people crowded around two tables settle down to industrial-sized iced coffees and lopsided berry muffins, conversation is at first slow to start. The participants, who range in age from 21 to 80, seem eager to exchange stories, but they don’t quite know how to begin.

Jeanne, a musician, is the first to break the ice. “I have a strange feeling that most of my life is behind me,” she remarks. Her 63rd birthday is approaching, and lately she’s been reflecting on the conspicuous absence of her parents. She is, for the first time in her life, an orphan.

Susan, an animated woman in her 40s who recently moved from Ohio to metro Detroit, says she feels as if she’s been approaching life “like I’m slogging through with a machete.” There’s a murmur of assent from the group, and they’re off.

This is the ninth meeting of the Ann Arbor death café, a monthly conversation circle that provides an open space for people to discuss matters of death and dying while drinking tea and eating cake. Its mission is simple: “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their finite lives.”

The idea for providing a space to discuss death was conceived in 2004 by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. Crettaz pictured death cafés — or cafés mortels — as open spaces for people to discuss matters of mortality, harking back to the French salons of the 18th century where participants could casually bat philosophical ideas back and forth over tea and pastries.

In 2011, the first English-speaking death café brought a modest number of six to British web developer Jon Underwood’s dining room in central London. It was a relatively low-key affair. Biscuits and tea were served, and the facilitator was Underwood’s mother, licensed psychotherapist Sue Barsky-Reid.

Since then, death cafes have catapulted across national and international consciousness. Collectively, there have been more than 200 death café meetings in places as far as New Zealand, Seattle, Calgary, and Norway, held at coffee shops, homes, cemeteries — even a yurt. The facilitators, often hospital chaplains, social workers, or hospice volunteers, bring no external agenda to the discussion, content to let the participants guide the conversation.

Underwood says his original concept for the death café was something a little more ritualized. He had planned to have guests burn items, sit in silence, and write their thoughts on Post-It notes. “But my mum said, ‘You don’t need to do all that; just let them talk,’ ” he says.

Underwood was astonished by the diversity of thought in the discussions and realized there was a real appetite for authentic conversations surrounding matters of life and death. “And so we just talked,” he says. “Since then, that’s just what we’ve done.”

A Social Shift

Societal attitudes about death and dying have undergone a dramatic transition in the past century. In 1900, the most common causes of death were infection-related — diseases like pneumonia or tuberculosis that swiftly consumed people at their bedside. Nowadays, chronic diseases requiring frequent, lengthy trips to the hospital more regularly top the list. The typical death is an increasingly monastic one — patients expire silently, hooked to life-support machines or cloistered in nursing-home beds.

What this shift has generated, inadvertently, is a sort of taboo around the discussion of death. As life-resuscitating technology has enabled people to live longer, society has become increasingly squeamish when discussing death. It’s become dislodged from its perch of normalcy.

“Back in the old days, when someone died, they were laid out in the front parlor,” says Merilynne Rush, a former midwife turned home funeral guide who first brought the Death Café to Ann Arbor last August. “Adults cared for the body themselves, and there wasn’t this kind of discomfort. They knew that death was normal.”

But in a health-care system where the ruling philosophy is to fight disease at all costs, more attention is given to deferring death rather than making the actual process more comfortable.

“We have a death-denying culture,” Rush says. “You’re not supposed to die; it’s considered a failure if you die.”

Such moratoriums on discussing death have left a hollow space for those who want to talk about it but have no place to do so. The death café movement, bolstered by an age of computer-generated isolation, has filled that space. It’s become so popular that recent participants in a London coffee-shop café were turned away because it was too crowded.

Rush theorizes that death cafés’ popularity stems from what she calls the conversation café movement, from which websites like Meetup and GroupSpaces have sprung. With so many people umbilically attached to their laptops, increased feelings of loneliness and a hunger for human contact have emerged. The desire to have more face-to-face conversations, compounded with people’s dissatisfaction with death care in general, Rush says, ignited the whole death café movement.

“People needed to talk,” Rush says, “and people needed to talk about death.”

Conversation Starters

And what do they talk about at death cafes? Any number of things. Living wills. What comprises a “perfect” death. Physician-assisted suicide. Mortuary rituals.

At the death café in Ann Arbor, Kat, a petite young woman with rimless glasses and a black ribbon looped around her neck, talks about her grandmother, who expressed a desire to die after losing her husband. Though all talk of suicide was banned from the house, Kat would furtively spend hours on the couch trading thoughts about life and death with her grandmother. When she finally passed away, she was buried in a plot next to her husband. “I’m convinced she died of a broken heart,” Kat says.

Discussing death in a time when so much control is outsourced to funeral providers and the medical profession, death café participants believe, is its own form of empowerment.

“Why should we talk about death?” Rush asks. “Because it’s the one thing in the world that happens to all of us.”