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Expert Comment: Dying for a brew? The growth of death cafes

Michael Brennan Wednesday 7 October 2015

Senior Lecturer in Sociology Dr Michael Brennan looks at the growing popularity of death cafes.

The English are not known for their readiness to discuss difficult or awkward topics, least of all death, which has long been considered a taboo subject within Western societies. So the idea of a group of strangers meeting up to discuss death and dying over cake and a cup of tea seems a particularly un-English thing to do. Yet that is precisely what has been happening in the UK since 2011, when Jon Underwood transplanted the idea of cafe mortels from Switzerland, where they had been the brainchild of sociologist Bernard Crettaz. Since that time, death cafes have sprung up across Europe, North America and Australasia, amounting to some 2,326 gatherings and involving an estimated 23,260 people. From Winnipeg to nearby Woolton, death cafes have emerged as a grass-roots social movement of individuals wanting to get together to talk about a topic most of us would rather avoid. Last week, founder of the death cafe movement in the UK Jon Underwood went a step further, launching plans for a permanent death cafe in London, offering shares in it at £50 each.

All of this raises some significant issues that tell us much about contemporary society in the 21st century and our attitudes towards death, dying and bereavement. While there have been some significant cultural shifts in recent years that suggest a thawing in our once frosty relationship with death and dying - from the open public mourning of celebrities to the growing abundance of roadside shrines - there remains a deep reluctance among members of the public to engage in conversations about the end of life. The Dying Matters coalition, established by the UK government in 2009, estimates that 79 per cent of individuals in the UK are uncomfortable talking about dying, especially with people closest to them. 

This has serious implications, with research suggesting a distinct under-preparedness among the UK population in terms of funeral provision and planning. Such unwillingness to discuss the end of life has serious implications for a number of death-related issues, from how, where and when we want to die, to what happens to our bodies, personal possessions and estates after we die. If we do not have these conversations with those closest to us, how can others know whether or not we want to be aggressively resuscitated in our old age, if we want to be buried rather than cremated, or donate our organs to others most in need of them. Additionally, in an age where many of our possessions are now virtual rather than material in nature, the failure to communicate passwords in the event of our death presents serious problems for digital inheritance. 

More research is needed to tell us something about who is drawn to death cafes, their reasons for getting involved, and the potential educational value of these gatherings in raising public awareness about death and dying. The emergence and growth of death cafes has remained largely confined to the Anglophone world. Perhaps this is because for many non-Western cultures, death, and conversation surrounding it, are as much a part of life as they once were in the West. Only in modern times have we 'out-sourced' the care of the dead and dying to professionals, from medical staff to undertakers who first 'undertook' to make coffins fit for the disposal of our dead, and only gradually came to overtake responsibility for a task we once performed ourselves - burying our dead. 

Death cafes, facilitated and hastened by social media and the World Wide Web - from where they become globally diffused, can be understood as part of a wider social process of taking back responsibility for things we have ceded to others, including death and decisions about how we want to die. If a remit of the Dying Matters coalition was to promote public awareness and citizen engagement by providing the resources to help start conversations about dying, death and bereavement, then the spread of death cafes, it is to be hoped, cannot but help in achieving that aim.

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