We spoke to the organisers of Death Cafe Cymru to find out why interest in death cafes, where people gather in a casual environment to discuss mortality, has piqued
Having a chat about death, with a cup of tea in one hand and a slice of carrot cake in the other, might sound unusual. But in fact, ‘death cafes’ have surged in popularity during the pandemic.
Originally set up in the UK in 2011, organisers say the objective is “to increase awareness of death, with a view to helping us make the most of our (finite) lives”.
More than 10,000 death cafe meetings have taken place in 70 countries over the past decade. Each session is run slightly differently, but they share a similar ethos, which is to create a space for people to discuss death in a safe and supportive environment. So how do they work, and what, really is the appeal?
‘There’s a need to talk about death and dying’
“It’s very much about people feeling comfortable to bring up anything that they want to about death,” says Brigid Haines, who set up Death Cafe Cymru, along with Sarah Hillcoat-Nalletamby. Both are retired academics.
Each session is ‘hosted’ by a facilitator, but they encourage people to talk freely. “At the start we ask people to speak and to present themselves, which is a bit of an icebreaker,” says Hillcoat-Nalletamby. The conversation kicks off from there.
Haines says she’s always surprised by the routes the discussion takes. “It’s quite random, and rather lovely in that sense,” she says. For example, in one session the group talked about pets, as someone had recently lost a pet, and that sparked a wide-ranging and serious conversation, Haines says. A lot of the discussion is people sharing personal anecdotes or information, she adds.
The only rules at Death Cafe Cymru are that people respect each other and listen, and that everything participants say is confidential. Haines and Hillcoat-Nalletamby say the feedback they’ve had so far has been “100 per cent positive” and that people have told them they felt inspired.
All sorts of people attend death cafe meetings, and can remain largely anonymous, so even the organisers don’t know what participants do for work, for example, or other details of their lives. Yet people talk quite openly and there’s a lot of trust. “You’ve never met these people before and you may never meet them again, and yet you’re talking about the most intimate fears, worries, hopes and dreams,” Haines says.
You’ve never met these people before, and yet you’re talking about the most intimate fears, worries, hopes and dreams
Haines herself says she had a turning point 10 years ago, when a cancer diagnosis made her reassess everything. While Hillcoat-Nalletamby says she has thought about death from a young age, when a grandfather passed away. She also wants to talk about the topic to help remove its taboo.
In many cultures, including the UK’s, talking about death and mortality is sometimes frowned upon, although there are signs that this is changing. According to new YouGov research, almost three-quarters of Britons questioned last year said they are now comfortable talking about their own death. “We can see there’s clearly a need and a willingness to talk about death and dying,” says Hillcoat-Nalletamby.
During the pandemic, families have been asked to provide end of life care, something usually given by GPs, community services and specialist palliative care teams. This may account for an increased interest in death cafes, as the pandemic has forced us to confront death in ways many of us may not have before. But there are a number of other good reasons to have conversations about it.
First, challenging the taboo can alleviate some of our anxieties around dying. Acknowledging our mortality can also help our loved ones to cope emotionally when we pass away, according to research. If they know what we want to happen with our bodies, it removes some practical stress, for example, and it’s also helpful if our loved ones know how we want to be remembered.
On top of that, it may help us appreciate our lives more fully. “If we live in a state of ignoring our own mortality then we don’t always appreciate the present moment, we’re always living in the future,” points out Haines. “But if we accept that we are mortal, then we focus more on living and today and what is good.
“Rather than being gloomy, accepting the reality of death makes you more alive,” she says.
Five positive steps you can take to prepare for death
Writing a will is the single most important thing you can do, says Ollie Haskins, head of growth and operations at life insurance and wills provider Bequest. It tells people exactly what you want. “Without it, [your loved ones] have to decide and it takes a lot of mental capacity when they need to focus on healing from grief.”
Image: Debby Hudson
We might not be used to chatting about death, but having a conversation about it can remove some of the anxiety and make it easier for loved ones facing it. “Having open conversations and removing that taboo is a really good place to start,” says Haskins. “Sometimes it can seem like a sobering topic, but it doesn’t have to be. Help people remember you for what you want to be remembered for.”
Image: Sven Mieke
“[Having life insurance] massively helps the people you leave behind,” Haskins notes. Life insurance provides financial support for your loved ones, removing financial stress. “It’s almost like a safety blanket,” he continues. It gives people time to grieve and means they don’t have to rush back to work or uproot their lives for financial reasons.
Image: Scott Graham
“Some people want a service with eulogies and readings, some people want a party,” Haskins says. There are no rules and no particular way you have to do it. “Sometimes having a casket and walking down the aisle isn’t in keeping with someone’s personality,” he says. Perhaps a party would suit you or your loved one better.
Image: Mayron Oliveira
There are lots of options that many people don’t know about. For example, rather than being buried in a cemetery, you could become part of a forest, or a coral reef. “There are loads of these new, much more environmentally friendly [things to do] that could create more positive experiences of the afterlife,” Haskins says. So do a bit of research.
Image: Julia Kadel
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