There are few taboos in our society larger than the one surrounding death. The topic is uncomfortable and unsettling for most of us. It forces us to confront an aspect we often wish to think about as little as possible. As a culture, we see death as an impolite subject to bring up, even when we should take time to address our relationship to it as much as we do our lives. In truth, death is an inevitable part of our lives. More than that, it is a topic that we should not shy away from indefinitely.
We all have very different perceptions of death. These are shaped by our personal experiences, religious beliefs, personal philosophies, and even our culture as a whole. What if there were a place to discuss death as a concept and a reality that we all face? What would such a thing be? That is the purpose of death cafes.
While they may sound like a morbid concept, in truth, they are far more than that. Death cafes seek to open discussions about death and dying in a way that makes the topics accessible. They make the process less daunting for the general population.
Have you ever wanted a safe, relaxed environment to discuss topics that many would find uncomfortable? What about a way to address the inevitability of death while still learning to embrace our lives to the fullest? Then you may be interested in attending a death café.
To date, thousands of death cafes have been held around the world, each one unique to the people gathering and specific location. In this guide, we discuss the purpose, history, and basics of hosting a death café. We'll explain why people attend, what benefits they offer to the general public, and where you can find a session on your own.
According to DeathCafe.com, a death café can be described as a place where “people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death.” Their objective is to increase awareness of death and help people make the most of their lives while they are still here.
Unlike grief support groups or counseling sessions, death cafes are focused on the exchange of ideas and conversations that are not limited to the experience of grief or loss. It is a discussion group for a topic many people find distressing designed to allow people a safe space to have meaningful talks about death.
To qualify as a death café, a meeting should meet a certain set of criteria. These include:
Death Cafes work on a "social franchise" model. That means that anyone can become a facilitator – or host – of an event in their area. They only need to follow set guidelines. Death Cafes have no paid staff members. Everyone involved does so on a strictly voluntary nature.
They simply decide to host a meeting and do so. There is no set itinerary or topics to be covered. Everything is spontaneous and depends upon those attending to lead the conversation. Provided that they follow the outline for the event, any meeting can call themselves a Death Café without paying a fee to use the name.
In 2011, British web developer Jon Underwood held the very first official Death Café at his home in East London. He invited a small group of people together for a slice of cake, a cup of coffee, and a frank chat about death. But that is not the whole story – or the inspiration for this success.
Underwood was inspired by Swiss anthropologist and sociologist Bernard Crettaz, whose research into how cultures respond to death led him to organize an event he called “café mortel” in 2004 at a small café in Neuchatel, Germany. His purpose was to break "tyrannical secrecy surrounding the topic of death.”
Crettaz’s event was heavily influenced by the formation of coffeehouses and cafes during the Enlightenment. During that 17th century period, the cafes and coffeehouses of Europe created a special social space that contributed to the dissemination of Enlightenment culture.
Different from a traditional tavern, the coffeehouses served tea and coffee instead of beer or wine. They also attracted more middle-class clientele who wanted a place devoid of alcohol and promoted “respectable” conversation. These establishments evolved into our current cafes and coffee shops today, though often without the same social atmosphere.
It was that social aspect that Crettaz wished to incorporate into his own café mortels, bringing people together to discuss the taboo subject. It also served as part of his ongoing research at the time. He took what he learned from these gatherings and incorporated them into a book: Cafés mortels: Sortir la mort du silence, published in 2010.
Upon learning about Crettaz’s project on a smaller scale, Jon Underwood organized his one such meeting, building the foundation for what would become the current Death Café model on that September evening in 2011.
The first meeting was facilitated by Susan Barsky Reid, a trained psychotherapist (and Underwood's mother). Soon after, Underwood built his website - DeathCafe.Com - to share the concept with the web.
Today, you can find Death Cafes across the globe, as more than 80 countries have joined in the conversation by hosting a session. That includes the thousands held in the United States!
The fear of death is one of the most primal ones we have. It's a fear that, at heart, everyone possesses. It leads us to anxieties, depression, and often influences our decision-making in many ways. Some of these are healthy, as when we choose to wear a seatbelt or weigh the risks of certain behaviors. However, sometimes our fears are in the driver's seat and lend themselves to us choosing not to live our best, healthiest lives.
While we can educate ourselves about the realities of death, death cafes offer a way to reach out to others while we do so. Humans are social beings at heart. We are at our best when we engage with others in mutually respectful ways. Death cafes offer this exact thing. Sitting down with a coffee to chat about the end of life with others does more good for our mindset than you might think.
When we talk openly about our struggles – even the ones we keep locked away inside – we can free ourselves from the anxiety surrounding them. People discuss anything from the most benign – like how to leave a good legacy or understanding power of attorney – to more complicated questions about suicide or infant mortality. These may be topics we are struggling with internally. Allowing discussion of those topics helps us come to terms with their complexities.
Because death cafés are not traditional establishments, they are not typically found in a directory or by conventional means. In truth, most of them resemble pop-up shops more than a gathering or grief counseling.
For those not familiar with the concept, a pop-up café is a temporary café (or restaurant, shop, or other similar establishments) that operates for a limited period. They have been popular since the early 2000s as a place for young professionals to gain exposure to their craft.
Usually, they do not exist outside of a specific time and place. They are held in private homes, industrial-style buildings, take up a smaller space in established restaurants or dining locations, or are even held during festivals or events. Many of these pop-ups are themed by type of food, décor, or often both.
In many ways, death cafes build from the concept of pop-up cafes and traditional group support meetings to create something unique and special. In doing so, they don’t follow any traditional models. Most death cafes are held inside private residences.
The very first official death café was held in the East London residence of Jon Underwood, a UK web designer who built from Crettaz’s earlier model to what we consider standard for today. However, homes are not the only place a Death Café meets.
They can often be found in bookstores, as larger establishments have small coffee shops or cafes attached with suitable seating for such an event. They can also be found at coffee shops, though you may find them more frequently held in non-chain stores instead of your local Starbucks or Peets.
Some cafes meet at restaurants over a meal or drinks. For others, holding death cafes in local cemeteries can help those seeking answers about death become more comfortable with both the concept and the final resting place for so many. Most unusually, one such café was also held in a yurt, of all places!
There is no single place suitable for death cafes. They can be held anywhere – and at any time. There's no constraint on the location or time of day for them.
Death Cafes are open to everyone 18+ provided they are willing and able to have open discussions about dying and death. For most death cafes, that is the only criteria for attendance.
You might assume that death cafes are typically for the elderly. After all, senior citizens are stereotypically more likely to be contemplating death as they journey further along life's path. However, there is often an equal (or even greater) number of young people who attend these gatherings.
Death conversations aren't limited by maturity. After all, people may begin considering both practical and philosophical aspects at any age. While individuals may attend alone, many couples or family members attend together. There's no single demographic more likely to be interested in attending.
There is usually no formal age restriction, though there may be some things to take under consideration before you attend. If you wish to bring a young child to a death café, you should check with the facilitator of the café first. You will want to be sure the event will be child-friendly for topics discussed and the chosen venue.
Most importantly, you want to ascertain that everyone else will be comfortable with a young child in the group. Even if your child is comfortable with the concepts discussed, others may struggle to be open and honest about their thoughts with a child present.
If the purpose of a death café is to bring in any topic about death, having a child in attendance may curb those wishing to discuss anything with mature content.
When looking for a death café to attend, you may want to see if there are any oriented towards specific communities. While many are open to everyone, you can also find sessions dedicated to subsets of the population. For example, there are death cafes for LGBTQIA+ groups, Jewish communities, senior citizens, teenagers, and those of specific faiths or religious practices.
Many members of marginalized communities come to cafes with questions that may not necessarily apply to a greater audience. Forming a smaller, more specialized group helps these groups feel comfortable broaching topics that people in other communities may balk at.
The purpose of a Death Café is to make everyone comfortable in each session, so it only makes sense that those who may not feel welcome in other communities make safe spaces for themselves. For those cafes, you will usually find that the organizer is a member of a specific group and thus can cater to their needs effectively.
If you would like to attend one of those, you may need to do a bit more research to find one that fits you best.
Members discuss any topic related to death and dying at a death café. It sounds vague but overall, it's done purposefully. The café conversation should flow naturally and without too many rules or a set agenda. The facilitator of the event is responsible for keeping the conversation as neutral as possible. That means they should not give too much input or directives to the participants.
Attendees lead the conversation. You – and others in the group – should feel comfortable bringing up any subject about death or dying that comes to your mind. These can be topics you may be interested in learning about, philosophical questions you’d like to explore, or telling stories that come to mind.
Usually, several members of the group will bring up their own topics. The conversation usually flows naturally, allowing for any number of surprising topics that may arise.
Some facilitators bring a list of conversation starters to a meeting. The questions can range from very simple – "Would you prefer cremation or burial?" to the more complicated "How do you feel about assisted suicide?"
These "ice breakers" might seem a bit morbid at first glance but they offer a starting point for more in-depth conversation, especially for those new to the group or who may be uncertain about how to broach a subject they wish to speak about.
Other groups feel that having any set agenda or topic takes away from the purpose of the café. They believe it takes away from the official death café model because these sessions are not intended to have directed discussion.
Unlike other groups which may focus on grief support or therapy models, Death Cafes function as an open discussion forum. Many hosts believe that people come to these groups with more than enough to discuss. By offering these prompts, you can unintentionally either narrow the conversation or, conversely, broaden it too much.
Here is a list of topics that come up regularly at death cafes:
In truth, the list could be exhaustive. Often, the facilitator starts as part of the conversation with a simple question – they ask everyone to introduce themselves and tell the group what brought them there today. Often, those answers will bring forward a unique and rewarding conversation.
Given the nature of death cafes, the easiest way to find one in your area is to go online. You can find a listing of upcoming death cafes at DeathCafe.Com if you take the time to search through their upcoming events. However, you may find that some of those are out of date, as they rely on outside organizers to maintain the schedule. While it sounds dismissive to suggest that you “google it,” you may find that it’s the easiest way to find a death café organizer in your area.
If you don’t feel comfortable with that approach, you may want to take a look at your local community center, YMCA, library, or bookstore. Many of these venues have a community board that houses flyers for upcoming events. Death café organizers often advertise their meetings using these bulletin boards or public spaces. You may even find the location of the next session that way!
Like many other things in our lives, there is probably a Facebook group for death cafes in your area. You can use the search function on social media to find out if you have a local group and what events they may be facilitating shortly!
If you aren’t able to find an in-person meet-up, you may be able to locate an online group or chat that serves the same purpose! Virtual meet-ups have become more common over the last few years. If you live in a rural area or have difficulty finding transportation, you may want to consider online options as an introduction to attending a death café.
Many times, our doctors are an underutilized source of information for these things. Physicians may have information about death cafes in your area. Additionally, you can contact a therapist or other mental health professional for upcoming meetings. If you don't have a therapist, you may be able to reach out to a local provider free of charge for the information. Therapists and physicians should have contact information for all kinds of groups, including death cafés in your area.
Now that you understand the purpose and generalities of a death café, you may be interested in taking the next step – hosting one yourself. After all, the death café model allows for anyone to hold a death café. Here are some tips to help you:
Death cafes are only as good as their hosts and facilitators. Before you decide how to choose a person for those roles (or whether you’d like to fill one yourself), let’s talk about what is expected in each.
This is the person in charge of setting up the death café. Likely, you will be taking this role if you are the person planning the café session. A good host needs good organization skills, networking skills, and patience! The host's responsibilities include arranging the venue and refreshments, recruiting other people to attend, publicizing the event, and making it a safe environment.
An essential role for any death café, the facilitator is the person who makes attendees feel comfortable during the discussion. They welcome attendees to the event, make sure to give people the chance to speak if they look as if they might have something to say, move the discussion forward if it grows stagnant, and enforce the rules.
They also manage difficult situations on the off chance that they arise. Facilitators should have good speaking skills, be good at managing conflict, and can handle any topic.
Sometimes these two roles can be filled by the same person. However, a facilitator is responsible for upholding their role only during the café, not during the set-up.
Finding a good venue is important to creating a good environment for your death café. Because you can hold a meeting just about anywhere, you have many options when it comes to choosing a place. Finding a small restaurant or coffee shop, an outdoor park, a community center, or even hosting in your own home are all options.
You will want to consider the cost of a venue, how easy it is to provide refreshments at a place, and how accessible it is for anyone who wants to attend.
Rules are especially important for these events, as death is a topic that some people may struggle to discuss. Here are some that we find most important to establish at the beginning of a session:
There are no hierarchies, and everyone should be treated equally
Show respect to everyone while they are speaking whether you agree with them or not.
Listen to one another in good faith. Do not make assumptions.
Respect everyone’s views.
Don’t be judgmental. Everyone attends for a reason. You may think you know why they are there – but that could be incorrect.
When you have organized the event, you will want to advertise! Let people know about your death café! You'll want to spread the word through your friends, family, and social networks. Share the details with your coworkers as well.
One good way to advertise is to make flyers and post them on community center bulletin boards, college campuses, bookstores, and any other place that is a spot to do so.
If you get enough interest in the event, you may want to consider an RSVP system. However, you might want to hold back on doing this unless you fear that you’ll have too many people for the size of your venue.
Death cafes operate on the basis that people attend a discussion without agenda, underlying purpose, or set topics. Discussion topics should be controlled by the attendees, not the facilitator or the host. As such, death cafes do not have themes for their sessions, nor do they provide a list of “appropriate” topics or questions to be discussed. If everyone is to feel confident to speak, then they must have the freedom to follow the conversation wherever it might lead.
One of the most basic principles of holding a death café is to also have refreshments for the attendees. Refreshments help people become comfortable and settle into the event. They also give people something to do if they aren’t feeling up to contributing to the conversation immediately. Sharing food is an important aspect of building a community and has always been an important part of the death café model.
While the cake is a feature of the original model in the UK, it is not a necessity. Food, however, is greatly encouraged. You can choose to have alcohol, though you should do so in moderation only.
Here are some other options for food:
If you want to host a death café, there’s no reason to rush through the planning process. Take the time you need to gather other organizers, find the perfect venue, prep your facilitator, and take care of all the little details. Great events take time. You don’t need to stress yourself by rushing any of the important aspects.
For more information about holding a death café, we encourage you to reach out to the organizers at DeathCafe.com to answer any questions you may have. They have a more detailed guide to hosting your death café there.
Death Café meetings run like any other group gathering and can vary by the number of people attending, location, and other factors. Typically, these sessions last between one to two hours – though they can go on longer if the attendees wish to expand on any of the session's topics at greater length. Meetings can be held monthly, but some locations can have bi-weekly or even weekly sessions depending on the organizer and how often the group wishes to meet.
The number of attendees depends entirely on the location, venue, and organizer. Some cafes have a core group of as few as 3-4 people who attend regularly and others who come when their schedule allows. Others have a dedicated group of between twelve and thirty people and may even have a waiting list of people who would like to attend should there be an opening. Most of the time, public groups welcome newcomers without a reservation or previous RSVP. However, private groups held in a person's home may have different attendance restrictions.
According to the official statistics on DeathCafe.Com, there are currently 6581 Death Cafes listed for the United States. That does not mean there aren't other unofficial gatherings that occur across the country. There may be smaller, less official groups that meet in certain areas.
While there are many Death Cafes in the US, you can find them worldwide, as over 80 countries have hosted them at one time or another. On the same site, they list 13499 Cafes held around the world.
The concept behind death cafes originated with Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss anthropologist who wanted to broaden the conversation around death. He developed the idea of “café mortels” in Switzerland where people came together to discuss the idea of death. This would later inspire an Englishman named Jon Underwood to host the very first death café.
Held in the basement of his home in September 2011, this discussion became the first iteration of an idea that would soon travel the globe. Underwood was a web developer by trade who welcomed anyone and everyone to the conversation regardless of religious beliefs, philosophical creed, social standing, or cultural differences. Sadly, he passed away on June 27, 2017, from undiagnosed leukemia at the age of 44.
Since then, the movement has only grown (partially in his memory) and is managed online by his sister and mother.
Because they are typically nonprofit organizations, death cafes are free and open to the public. Some cafes may operate on a voluntary donation basis for renting a venue (if applicable) or for snacks and food brought by the organizer. Other times purchasing food from an established venue may be the preferred option.
Unless otherwise stated, death cafes are open to anyone 18+. This includes individuals, families, coworkers, couples, etc. Anyone can come to a death café as they are open to the public. However, if you wish to bring children under 18, you should contact the facilitator in advance.
Additionally, some death cafes are specific to certain groups – like LGBT+ individuals, teenagers, the elderly, or others – and are not applicable to the general populace.
Depending on the size of the group, you may need to RSVP in advance to guarantee your attendance! Some groups are so large that they have waiting lists for their sessions. If you suspect a busy venue, you might want to consider reaching out to the facilitator or organization behind the event and making sure there is space for their next session.
Yes! There has been a push to move some meetings into virtual spaces. That move allows more people to attend safely without crowding an area and may allow people who are not in a centralized location to participate. It's also convenient for people in rural areas who cannot always travel long distances to meet.
In 2020, many death cafes switched to a Zoom format. In this case, many people would join a voice or video call. Depending on the number of people, the group may break into smaller sections of 5-6 people that make it easier for people to converse freely.
While they may sound maudlin or depressing, the opposite is usually true. Death cafes are simple. A group of people – often strangers – gather together at a specific location to discuss death. Usually, they serve tea and cake (in the British tradition) but in the US, this can be substituted with a meal, a potluck, or even a few drinks among the group. If the café is held at a private venue, they usually offer soft drinks, water, and light snacks. If it’s at a restaurant or venue that serves food or drink, then participants can purchase these things for themselves.
A death café offers a discussion of death among a group, often without a dedicated agenda or theme. It is a chance for people to come together, ask questions, or discuss what concerns or ideas they may have when it comes to a concept very few people wish to think about at all.
Death cafes are not therapy groups. They are a meeting place for people to discuss death. These meetings never have a real agenda or objectives. As such, it should not be used for your only grief support. Themes of grief or loss may come up as part of the discussion, but this is not a substitute for therapy. You should not use death cafes for grief support or instead of seeking a professional bereavement counselor.
Please seek out a professional if you are experiencing lasting depression, anxiety, or other anguish in the wake of losing a loved one.
One of the easiest ways to find a local death café in your area is to seek them out online. Since they aren't held at specific places (and there are no physical locations dedicated to them), you may need to do a bit of searching around to find one near you. Fortunately, DeathCafe.com often has a list of upcoming affiliated events registered with their site. You may also want to reach out to local organizations in your area - like community centers, elder care establishments, and local social media pages that might have search functions for them (i.e. on Facebook).
Death is an inevitable part of life, though it is one not often considered by most people. We often approach the topic with trepidation and fear. Death cafes can change that, giving us a new way to process mortality and talk about what we want for ourselves at the end of our lives.
Death cafes offer individuals a haven for expressing anxieties or frustrations tied to facing the end of life – whether our own or that of a loved one. They can be a tool for bringing communities together as well. Often, we ignore our anxieties in favor of pretending that these things don't bother us. By exploring the concept of death with other people – even strangers! – we can find the courage to ask questions about the aspects that affect us the most.
January 7, 2022 by Frances Kay