When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, surviving and thriving became my Number One focus.
But I also wanted to talk about death. Contemplating my mortality became as important as ever, and I wanted to learn from others how they approached the topic. Yet I soon discovered that few people I knew wanted to engage in that kind of talk — certainly not with a cancer patient. “You’ll be fine,” they’d tell me. “Death is the last thing you should be talking about.”
That’s when I learned that sometimes, the toughest topics are best broached with total strangers. And that’s the simple yet profound motivation behind Death Cafe.
Death Cafe is a global movement to encourage people to openly discuss death, with no agenda, objective or themes. It originated in East London in 2011, when Jon Underwood — inspired by the ideas of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz — gathered a group of friends and neighbors to talk about death. Underwood died in 2017, but his movement has blossomed, with hosts holding more than 7,000 Death Cafes in 58 countries since it began. The only rule of a Death Cafe — as befitting any proper social occasion — is that refreshments be served.
Death Cafe Ground Zero
My hometown of San Diego has become Death Cafe Ground Zero, with more than 50 events a year, topping any other city in the world. That’s thanks in no small part to the efforts of Karen Van Dyke. Van Dyke, now a certified senior advisor, attended her first Death Cafe about six years ago when she was still working in the banking world. She then began hosting the events regularly, creating materials and an online network for others who want to replicate the experience in their own communities. She and co-coordinator Anne Barber have enlisted 28 hosts, and her goal is that eventually every San Diego neighborhood will hold a Death Cafe.
“There’s an untapped desire to talk about death,” Van Dyke says. “If you stay in the dark, you’re in the dark, but if you move into the light of knowledge, your fear dissipates and you start to recognize what your story is. Do you want to change that story, or do you want to continue that story? All of those things start to happen when you attend a Death Cafe.”
“If you want to stay in the dark, you’re in the dark, but if you move into the light of knowledge, your fear dissipates and you start to recognize what your story is.”
Van Dyke recalls one gentleman who showed her the big book he had been holding. He said it was his estate plan, but his kids wouldn’t let him broach the subject. He told her he was so grateful for the Death Cafe she hosted because he could finally discuss such issues openly.
“Imagine,” Van Dyke says, “you’re holding this book you created and no one will talk to you about it!”
Although Death Cafe is not intended to be a bereavement support group, Van Dyke says that all manner of topics come up during the discussions, including the loss of loved ones, near-death experiences and the afterlife. She says, in fact, that those attending Death Cafes are often surprised by the amount of laughter that can be overheard.
A sense of relief
“Death is really not the macabre topic we make it out to be,” she notes. “It can be sad, but it’s not weird. And just as the things that happen in birth can be funny, the things that happen in death are also often very funny. But I think some of the laughter comes from a sense of relief that people feel once they start talking about it.’’
San Diego resident Amy Wallen first went “Death Cafe-hopping” in 2015, on assignment for a story in San Diego CityBeat magazine. She now goes to Death Cafes often, and says she believes going to one should be required for everyone.
Wallen values hearing other people’s insights and stories, which can often help provide perspective on the mystery of death. She says she can still recall one fellow’s theory on the dying process and the afterlife. “He had this great idea about life being an amusement park and there’s that last ride we go on, but no one has ever seen anyone else get off it.”
Wallen also says that sharing stories at a Death Cafe is often — counter-intuitively perhaps — “life-affirming.”
“Anyone who has been to a funeral knows that usually you sit around hearing stories, and even if you’re sharing these stories with strangers you leave feeling invigorated about life,” Wallen says. “You realize there’s so much to live for and so many experiences that are worth living. We end up talking about life more than we do mourning and grief.”
Van Dyke, for her part, sees her work with Death Cafe as something of a community service.
“As with anything,” she says,” the solutions in our world come from creating community. When you are in the tribe and having conversations you’ve never had, it takes the lid off the pressure cooker and lets out some steam.”
“And hey,” adds Wallen, “you’re not going to die just talking about it!”
Tiffany Fox is a San Diego-based writer, book editor and instructor. She is the Communications Manager for Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health and also teaches Science Writing at UC San Diego Extension. Prior to that she was a columnist and writer with the San Diego Union-Tribune. Tiffany is the Vice President of the San Diego Science Writers Association, a contributing writer to several local publications, a former Peace Corps volunteer and a mother of two.