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Talking it through

24 October 2014

On the menu are tea, cake, and chats about dying; but Rachel Giles finds the Death Café experience surprisingly jolly

A MAN in his twenties tells us about his friend's death. In the night, he dreamt about this friend. The next morning, he found out that he had died. A teenage girl shares how her Nan did not want to talk about the end when she was dying. A doctor tells us that she sees death every day at work.

I am at a Death Café, run by new monastic community Moot. I arrived late, and the first thing that struck me was the noise and laughter. I'd worried that it would be morbid. Far from it.

There is no need for small talk. We already have one thing in common: our mortality, and we are relishing the chance to discuss it. The elephant has left the room.

My husband is with me, and chips in. When his dad was dying, his family was in such denial that he never felt it was OK to tell his dad the important things, like how much he would miss him. Another woman worries aloud about leaving her daughter behind. I talk about how grief seems to be physical as well as emotional.

Death Cafés are now something of a worldwide phenomenon. Developed by Jon Underwood in association with a psychotherapist, Sue Barsky Reid, and based on the "café mortel" model of the Swiss sociologist and ethnologist Bernard Crettaz, there have been 1176 Death Cafés held around the world since 2011. Run on a voluntary, non-profit basis, they can be organised by anyone, as long as he or she signs up to a Death Café "guide" and principles.

Death Cafés are not meant to be grief-support or counselling groups, just a friendly space where you can talk about death. They have taken place in some interesting locations: people's homes, community halls, a cemetery, and the South Bank Centre, London.

For me, the experience is surprisingly liberating, and I leave feeling lighter. Later, over a beer with a friend, I say where we have been, worried I will cast a downer on proceedings by mentioning the D-word. Our friend immediately starts talking about her will. I resolve to do something about ours: after four years of marriage, we still do not have one.

I am still procrastinating, but Will Aid Week is coming up: a golden opportunity to put my affairs in order. Thanks to my Death Café experience, the idea of thinking about death and making a will is a bit less scary.


Moot is holding a Death Café on 31 October, at its Host Café in St Mary Aldermary, London, run with the Office of Public Ritual.


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