Death cafes: coffee, cake and conversation about death

Halifax Local Express

Imagine sitting in a local coffee house, cake in hand, talking to strangers about … death.

Sure, we can get all the (mis)information we crave from the Internet. But there’s something deeply comforting hearing real stories from real people. And that’s the premise behind death cafés.

The first café mortel took place in France in 2004. It was led by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz with the aim of breaking the “tyrannical secrecy” surrounding the topic of death. Since then, the concept has gained ground throughout Europe and North America.

A death café is not a physical location. Rather, it’s an event where people — most likely strangers — gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss the last taboo. The objective is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” It is a group-directed conversation about death with no agenda, objectives or themes.

To be labelled a death café, the gathering must follow a few rules:

  • It must operate on a not-for-profit basis, as a “social franchise”
  • It must be run by facilitators with empathy, an enthusiasm for talking about death and dying, a friendly manner and an understanding of clear boundaries
  • It must be held in an accessible, respectful and confidential space
  • There must be no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action
  • There must always be tea, coffee and cake!

It is also worth stating what a death café is not:

  • a bereavement support group or a grief counselling session. (Death cafés will not work well for people who, for whatever reason, are unable to discuss death openly. You may feel a little uncomfortable to begin with, but any discomfort is soon dispelled once the discussions start to flow.)
  • This is not the place to receive or give out information about death and dying — regardless of how good or important it is. (Rather, it is a time to discuss death without expectations or judgment. For this reason, guest speakers and information materials are actively discouraged. Nor should you wax lyrical about the latest self-help book you’ve read.)
  • It does not work as a method of community engagement, research or consultation.

The Death Café organization has established these rules to keep the get-togethers positive. It is also done to prevent the use of the concept by those with an agenda or a personal or commercial interest in the sessions.

Death cafés have helped to relax the taboo against speaking about death, particularly with strangers, and encouraged people to express their own wishes for after they die. The open-ended discussions also provide an avenue to express thoughts about one’s own life stirred up by the death of a family member.

By bringing death out of the closet (and leaving the skeletons behind!), we can have a pre-mortem discussion about some deadly serious business.

There is a Halifax group. You can also find the death café nearest you here.

Alex Handyside is a certified professional consultant on aging and a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. He spent the 12 years prior to his retirement as the owner of an award-winning home-care agency. He now writes and consults.