Death cafes report a surge in interest during lockdown extension

Hosts of so called ‘death cafes’ are reporting a global surge in demand for honest conversation about “the nitty-gritty of dying”, and say the coronavirus pandemic has made frank discussion about our mortality more necessary than ever reported the Guardian recently.

Death cafes are scheduled, non-profit get-togethers for the purpose of talking about death over food and drink - usually tea and cake. They do not have permanent premises, but tend to be events hosted at someone's house or another temporary venue. The goal of these non-profit groups is to educate and help others become more familiar with the end of life. Individuals can discuss their understanding, thoughts, dreams, fears and all other areas of death and dying.

The idea originates with the Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz, who organized the first café Mortel in 2004. Jon Underwood a UK web developer was inspired by Crettaz’s work and developed the Death Cafe model in 2011. He was instrumental in the spread of the idea. They have since been held in 66 countries and since lockdown are becoming more popular online.

“In these difficult times, as death comes closer, it’s very important to have a forum to talk about our fears and anxieties,” says Sue Barsky Reid, a psychotherapist who chaired the UK’s first death cafe in 2011 and now coordinates, with her daughter Jools, the international movement that has established more than 10,000 similar meetings over the past decade.

Nicole Stanfield, organiser of the Taunton, Somerset, death cafe, recently held two online events and welcomed virtual visitors from across England as well as one from France: “It was amazing to see the geographical spread. I’ve been surprised by the amount of interest, but people are looking for answers. We’re only going to see more death during this pandemic, so people are suddenly thinking about living wills, advanced care discussions and funeral planning.

Hosts in the US describe a similar online effect, despite the physical restrictions of lockdown. “People are being forced to face their own mortality every waking moment,” reports Megan Sipe-Mooney, who organises cafes in Missouri. “There’s a huge need right now and I’m getting lots of requests on our Facebook page. I’ve been training other hosts in how to host virtual death cafes and make sure tea, coffee and cake is still present.”

The reference to cake is not flippant: proper refreshments are fundamental to the relaxed and often upbeat atmosphere that death cafes aim for, and which marks them out from a more traditional counselling or educational setting.

Conversations have become far more practical since the outbreak, explains Aly Dickinson, a death cafe host based in Exeter. “People are realising that deaths during this pandemic won’t be what they might have envisaged, or thought of as a so-called ‘good death’ – gently slipping away, surrounded by family and friends. So the conversations are about how death from Covid might look now – for example, people may decide they do not want to be hospitalised and receive invasive medical interventions or face restricted visiting from loved ones.”

“They want to discuss the nitty-gritty, like: will I be able to get out to register the death, could we have a wake remotely, how do we share grief and memories when we’re apart? People are wanting hard facts and information about what dying of Covid-19 is actually like. Maybe there’s not quite so much laughter, as the mood is more serious.”

 “We’ve talked in the past about how nobody wants to discuss death and dying”, Dickinson adds, “and suddenly that conversation is right in front of us, in the media and also our own families and communities. So at the death cafes that have taken place since the pandemic, the biggest change is that people are talking about death in a here-and-now way, rather than as something distant.”

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