Healthy Mind

The ‘death cafÉ’ phenomenon

Firstly, what is a Death Café? A Death Café is defined as a place where people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. The purpose behind a Death Café is to increase awareness of openly discussing death and to help people make the most of their finite lives. A Death Café is merely a group discussion and emphasises the fact that it is not a grief support group nor is it a counselling session. The main objective is to discuss death in a positive light and make it an engaging experience for everyone involved.
Death Cafés are the brainchild of Jon Underwood, and originated in London in 2010. Underwood took on a series of projects regarding death, one of which was talking openly about death and thus the Death Café was born. In 2011, Underwood hosted the first ever Death Café in the UK at his own home in Hackney, East London. The Death Café was a success and they have been held in various cafés, homes and even in cemeteries ever since.
The words Death Café have spread quickly across the globe to Europe, North America and Australasia. Lizzy Miles was the first person to host a Death Café event outside of the UK when she hosted the Death Café in Ohio, USA.
The Death Café website (deathcafé.com) encourages people to get in touch and participate in hosting their own Death Café wherever they may be in the world. The website has a ‘how to’ guide for hosting your own Death Café. Jennifer Stritch, a lecturer in Social Care at Limerick IT, has hosted her own Death Café.
“Alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food, and cake, I think Death Cafés are places where people can talk about life, with the death part left in.” Stritch confessed that she always had an interest in the idea of a Death Café since she heard about them three years ago through articles on social media. As a lecturer of Social Care, Stritch teaches a lot about grief and loss, which she said “is a strong research interest of mine”.
Stritch continued: “In February 2015 I presented at an academic conference at Mary Immaculate College called ‘The Literature of Loss’ and started talking to two other presenters on the day, Dr. Tracy Fahey from Limerick School of Art and Design and Sinead Dinneen, an artist and lecturer at Mary Immaculate. All three of us said we would love to host a Death Café and even though we didn’t know each other well at the time we said we’d go for it.
“Nine months to the day we hosted the first Death Café in Limerick on 11 November, 2015. We expected perhaps 30 people or so to attend, but we had to close the doors when over 120 people showed up on the night.” Stritch confirmed you must be eighteen or over to attend the Death Café but added, “I’m exploring having a death cafe event for younger people, perhaps ages 15 to 18.”
Stritch happily shared her favourite anecdote from the previous Death Café: “One of my favourite stories about our November 2015 event was from a lady who contacted me the next day. I didn’t know her but she had attended the event with her sister and mother and had been a little reluctant to go but went along because her sister insisted. She was especially worried because her mother was older, maybe 75 or so, and her father had just died the year before.
“They ended up sitting with some students from LIT and LSAD [Limerick School of Art and Design] and having a great time. As they left the café and walked to their car, their mother turned to her daughters and said, ‘I know it was a Death Café but I felt very alive tonight.’ I think that’s what a Death Café can offer to people, a chance to connect with others about the mystery that’s at the centre of our lives, and that’s our own mortality.”
Stritch has attended a Death Café in New York, stating “it was small but fantastic with interesting people and lots of amazing conversations.” Stritch hopes to organise more events across Ireland and is happy to assist any person or group interested in hosting their own Death Café.