Have you ever wanted a space where you can connect with other people over your mutual connection to death as a concept? Well do we have the space for you. Introducing Death Cafes! Since 2011, death cafes have grown in popularity and have held events all over the world. Today we want to explore death cafes, their history and why they may be more important than you think at first glance.
The Wysh Blog
- What is a death cafe?
- History of death cafes
- How to run a death cafe
- Why death cafes?
- Term life insurance by Wysh
- TL; DR
What is a death cafe?
Immediately upon hearing the words “death cafe” I pictured a cute coffee shop dressed in kitschy Halloween themed attire—skeleton muffins, cookies in the shapes of bones, “witches” dark brew coffee or something like that. The unholy union of a Spirit Halloween and a Brooklyn coffee house. In reality, death cafes are something trying to achieve a level of emotional vulnerability I hadn’t quite imagined.
Death cafes are not physical locations. As defined by researchers Laranjeira, Dixe, Querido & Stritch, “Death Cafes are a global social franchise, with locally-organized public events that encourage discussion of all aspects of death, dying and mortality” (Laranjeira et al 2022).1 The Death Cafe main site states that its purpose is, “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
These events can happen at cafes as well as public libraries, restaurants or any public spaces to encourage casual yet meaningful conversations about the nature of death. Since the first death cafe in 2011, pop up events have happened all over the world in 85 countries. They’re casual affairs, usually running only a couple of hours at various pop up locations.
History of death cafes
The Death Cafe model was developed by English web-developer Jon Underwood and his mother, Sue Barsky Reid, based on ideas from Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. Crettaz’s Café mortels started in 2004 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The initial idea was for people to meet in bistros to discuss death, because death was seen as a way to bypass small talk and converse authentically (Koksvik & Richards, 2021).2 Crettaz was especially connected to the idea of cafes and bistros as “third places,” spaces that were neither full public or private, which could serve as ideal settings for such conversation (Koksvik & Richards, 2021).
Researchers Koksvik & Richards place death cafes within a “new wave” of social initiatives associated with what they refer to as the death awareness movement, something that sprang up in the US in the 1970s in an attempt to chastise modernity’s perceived disenchantment with death. Other such initiatives they noted were the Order of the Good Death, Death Salon, and Death Over Dinner.
Within this tradition and inspired by Crettaz’s idea, Underwood hosted the first “death cafe” in his private London home in 2011. He then published guidelines on how others could host their own death cafes to allow for a safe space to reflect on the finite nature of life, with the first “international” event taking place in the 2012 in the US. Since then, death cafes have popped up in countries like Australia, Germany and China.
Jon Underwood passed in 2017 and Bernard Crettaz passed in 2022. But Underwood’s Susan Barsky Reid and his sister, Jools Barsky have continued the legacy of death cafes coordinating pop up events all over the world.
How to run a death cafe
The good news is that death cafes are pop up events run by volunteers and organizers. If you want to run your own death cafe pop up event, then you’re already on your way. According to the main website, Death Cafes hosts a free affiliate scheme, which allows you to use the name for your event, post events on the main site, and talk to press and others as affiliates of Death Cafe.
You’ll also have to agree with the principles of Death Cafe. Death Cafes are always offered:
- With no intention of leading participants to any conclusion, product or course of action.
- As an open, respectful and confidential space where people can express their views safely.
- On a not for profit basis.
- Alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food – and cake!
The site also refers to what Death Cafes ARE NOT:
- Death Cafe is not a bereavement support or grief counseling setting. Death Cafe doesn't work for people who, for whatever reason, aren't able to discuss death comfortably and openly. There are many projects better set up for this.
- Death Cafes aren't an opportunity to give people information about death and dying - regardless of how good or important it is. Rather we create time to discuss death without expectations. For this reason having guest speakers and information materials available is actively discouraged
- Death Cafe doesn't work as a method of community engagement, research or consultation. It shouldn't be used for these purposes.
The main things you’ll need to run your own Death Cafe are:
- A host and facilitator
- A venue or location with refreshments that’s been booked for time and date
- Attendees who want to discuss death
Why death cafes?
In their paper “Death café, Bauman, and striving for human connection in ‘liquid times’”, researchers Koksvik & Richards apply Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of “liquid modernity” to analyze death cafes as a phenomenon. Bauman’s concept of liquid modernity was a replacement for the term “postmodern” or “postmodernity.” The idea is that “postmodernity,” as defined by Bauman, implies that modernity has been left behind, that it’s essentially over. Bauman, however, viewed that while modernity is solid, our connections to individual identities, communities, etc., have become increasingly privatized and subsequently subject to frequent flux. To put it another way, our sense of individual identity and sense of communities have become “liquid.”
What’s this got to do with death cafes? Well for Koksvisk & Richards, death cafes function as spaces where attendees can assuage their sense of loneliness by demonstrating it’s commonality with one another, while not attempting to get rid of it. For them, the importance of the subject matter of death within death cafes isn’t in challenging a “death taboo” as has been cited, but in that it creates, as they note, “affective bonds and expressivity within the group and helps to satisfy the criteria for human connection in late modern social life” (Koksvisk & Richards, 2021).2 Essentially death cafes are places for people to feel temporarily connected to a community using death as the jumping off point.
The process seems to have at least made death cafes incredibly popular since 2011. It’s not hard to see why, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Death has never been fully absent from our conversations, but death cafes seek to reframe how we can make sense of the time that we have left.
Term life insurance by Wysh
Death cafes don’t have to be the only place where we discuss death. Applying for a term life policy means discussing the possibility of death with your loved ones and how they’ll be protected when you go. If you don’t have a policy, you can head on over to the Wysh term life page to play around with our free Wysh Builder tool. That way you can craft the perfect policy for you. Check it out now and we’ll see you on the other side.
- Death cafes are pop up events that where people can gather and discuss all things death
- They were started by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid in 2011, based off Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz’s Café mortel model
- You can host a death cafe in your town or city by just heading over to the Death Cafe main site
1 - Laranjeira, C., Dixe, M. A., Querido, A., & Stritch, J. M. (2022). Death cafés as a strategy to foster compassionate communities: Contributions for death and grief literacy. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.986031
2 - Koksvik, G. H. & Richards, N. (2021). Death café, Bauman, and striving for human connection in ‘liquid times’, Mortality. https://doi.org/10.1080/13576275.2021.1918655