Death Cafe London – your thoughts requested



Summary

 

This year I’ve been developing plans to set up a real Death Cafe in London. The work so far has convinced me that this venture is both viable and desirable. Death Cafe London is a community venture however, and won’t work without widespread support. When I met him recently, Bernard Crettaz urged caution. We need to make some crucial decisions about whether to proceed or not and so this is a request for people’s views on - “should we set up a real Death Cafe in London or not?”

 

Overview

 

This year I have been working on plans to set up a ‘real’ or physical Death Cafe. Until now, all of our Death Cafes have been pop-ups events in local homes or venues. This project is to set up ‘Death Cafe London’, a coffee shop in central London offering people the opportunity to engage with death, however briefly.

 

I feel confident both that Death Cafe London would be something new and unique and that it is financially viable. There are, however, many elements of the project that are difficult to predict and so we need to think very carefully about moving forward. The community owned and not for profit model I am proposing requires significant support for it to work.

 

Bernard Crettaz, an important stakeholder, has made clear the need for careful consideration. When I interviewed him in Switzerland and asked about this project he identified some risks. I have included an excerpt from the transcript of our conversation below, with my response.  

 

Though I am personally very keen to progress this, it does not make sense to do this unless there is widespread support from those connected with Death Cafe. The next stage of setting up Death Cafe London involves establishing the legal structure and launching a community share offer in March 2015. Before kicking this off we need to be sure….

 

So I would like to ask you to share your thoughts on Death Cafe London. Should we do this or not? Over the next 6 weeks we can discuss, consider and then decide.

 

I am happy to answer any questions and supply further information about what is being proposed.

 

To share your comments please either:

-         Post them on our website deathcafe.com

-         Share them on facebook http://facebook.com/deathcafe

-         Tweet us https://twitter.com/deathcafe

-         Email me directly: underwoodjon @ gmail.com

 

I think it is ideal for as much of this discussion as possible be in public. It’s all talking about death, after all.

 

Early in 2015 I will set up:

-         A poll on the Death Cafe website to collect votes

-         One or more conference calls / google hangouts to discuss proposals (please let me know if you can help with this)

 

We need to come to a decision about whether to do this or not by the end of January at the latest.

 

I am sorry that this is rather long and complex, if you have the time to consider this and respond - I would really appreciate it.

 

All the best and many thanks.

 

Jon

 

 

Background information - What is Death Cafe London?

 

Death Cafe London is a cafe for people who want to think about death, however briefly (and for people who love awesome cake).

 

It will be coffee shop and events venue offering:

 

1. Food and drink. Death Cafe London will offer drinks, light meals and cake both to eat in and takeaway.

 

2. Events. Death Cafe London will also have a carefully curated programme of events connected to death. The Cafe will be a space for Death Cafes facilitated by whoever is in town, including Death Cafes for specific communities. These will be offered by a wide range of people and might involve art, poetry, film or music, discussion, lectures, information giving or practical training.

 

3. Shop. To generate income, Death Cafe London will be the only place authorised to sell Death Cafe merchandise both in store and online.

 

Death Cafe as a project is uniquely placed to successfully set up a venture of this kind. This is due to our track record of having:

- Developed an effective model for talking about death with a unique identity

- Delivered this globally, for free, via an empowering social franchise

- Brought together a unique coalition of talented, passionate people, mostly women

- Been the subject of 100’s of media features including NYT (front page), Washington Post, NPR, BBC TV and radio and the Guardian

- Got tens of thousands of people talking about death across 27 countries.

 

The purpose of the Death Cafe movement is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives”.  Death Cafe London is a logical next step to achieving this aim.

 

Death Cafe London would also share Death Cafe’s 4 principles. It would be:

-         Run on a not-for-profit basis

-         Accessible, respectful and confidential space

-         No intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action

-         With refreshing drinks and nourishing food – and cake!

 

The Death Cafe model of discussion about death is very egalitarian and  this principle would be strongly reflected in the structure of Death Cafe London. It will be what UK law calls a Community Benefit Society, which is entirely owned and run by the community who sets it up.

 

Death Cafe London would be funded by a community share offer. Any individual or organization can purchase shares.  Shares in a Community Benefit Society do not entitle the owner to a share of any profits generated. However, shares can be withdrawn at their value plus interest as long as the venture is able to support this.

 

A management committee would be elected from shareholders. They would be responsible for all the key decisions about Death Cafe London including hiring staff.

 

The use of the name Death Cafe London and the right to sell merchandise are given by way of a license from Death Cafe. To use this name, Death Cafe London must uphold Death Cafe’s ethical standards and pay a license fee. This will be used to help Death Cafe become a sustainable organization.

 

In terms of my (Jon’s) role I would like to be employed by Death Cafe London to set it up and run it. If this went ahead I would be employed by Death Cafe London as long it worked for both parties.

 

If Death Cafe London is successful then it will be possible for others around the world to set up their own ‘real’ Death Cafes.

 

The views of Bernard Crettaz about Death Cafe London

 

Jon: … I share your objective to give death back to the people, and as part of this, I am thinking of, I am working to establish a real death cafe in London. This will be a space for death cafes but also, it will be an invitation for people to apply their creativity to death. What do you think of the idea?

 

[Bernard asks for clarification]  Where there’s creativity?

 

Jon: Yes, where people can apply their creativity to bring, they can relate to death in their own way, whether it’s through poetry, through films, painting.

 

Bernard : I respect your idea Jon. But I just like to draw your attention. There is a great gift in what you do. I also had this idea of finding a fixed place and then I abandoned it. Why? Because I want us to be nomads like life. What is extraordinary in our work is to go from one cafe to another and to speak to the owner of the cafe: Can I come and speak about death here? That’s already a huge job. And to also say to the owner of the cafe: I also want to speak about death. You negotiate and you need to accept the people. And there’s also all the customers who come every day, to draw these people in. For me, this nomadic life by changing cafes was a fundamental rule for me. I am scared but I respect your idea that you create a specific space, that you actually recreate a specialised space while we actually want to give death back to the city and people. But I just want to draw your attention to the dangers of creating a ghetto of death. But you are doing it, I’ll respect it but I am scared of creating a new space that becomes a new specialist or a ghetto of death.

 

Jon’s notes on Bernard’s views

 

 Firstly I would like to say that I have the utmost respect for Bernard. It was clear to me when I met him that he is a very unusual and amazing man.


I think Bernard’s comments are really deep and I am sure I do not understand them fully – another reason for this discussion! Also the need for translation makes communication more difficult.


Bernard says something about the importance of this work being nomadic. I love this idea too. We want to take consideration of death into the most far flung reaches of life! There is no question of us stopping offering ‘nomadic’ Death Cafes no matter what happens with Death Cafe London.


But more importantly Bernard seems to be concerned that setting up a ‘real’ Death Cafe will involve “creating a new space that becomes a new specialist or a ghetto of death


I understand Bernard to be saying that if we tie this down by putting it in a specific venue it will remove the magic of it. It will in some way put death in a certain box, and by doing so we would lose the openness and vibrancy of what we do at the moment.


I agree that this is a real risk and am grateful to Bernard for highlighting it.  I believe, however, that we can set up a ‘real’ Death Cafe without turning into the ‘death specialists’ Bernard is warning about becoming.


As you will see when the video of our interview is released, I asked Bernard a specific follow up question: “So you would advise not to do it?” I am glad I did as at the end of his answer he says “this nomadic way of life … makes us question ourselves all the time.” I think that this – asking questions of ourselves about death, lacking certainty, and proactively engaging with diverse communities  – is what will stop us becoming death specialists.


Rather, I think the project will be beneficial for society and a chance for a lot of learning and discussion. I have confidence that it will be enjoyable. I think the time is right for this and by offering a place where people can come and engage with death we’ll be doing something we’ll be proud of.

 

But I can’t proceed unless I know that there are at least a significant number of you with me - please share your thoughts.



Comments


Thoughts and reflections #2

Hi,

Thanks again to everyone who has commented or thought about this. There are a wide range of different views which is great.

There have been a number of comments about the financial viability of starting a real Death Café in London. This is of course a really important question.

One previous comment is from Janet Fernihough. Janet is amazingly highly skilled and has kindly donated her time to this project by helping to develop an initial draft business plan. As such Janet’s comment is worth paying close attention to.

Janet frames a the question as "will paying customers come to a death cafe often enough to make this viable?" The honest answer to this has to be we don’t know.

At Death Cafes as they stand we get many 1 time attendees and often significant turnover between events. Its like people come to connect with death and then move on to get on with their lives. Perhaps this indicates that even people who are open to connecting with death only would want to do so occasionally.

But the way people will interact with a real Death Café could be much more diverse. Attending a Death Café event is a relatively big commitment. Would people want to connect with a death awareness project more regularly if they could do so very lightly e.g. by just popping in for a drink?

It also helps that this would be a not for profit venture. We only have to make enough to cover our expenses. We’re only there “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives'”

Personally, if I am completely honest, I am not sure that this venture will bring in enough income to survive. This is of course a vital question but not what I am really asking right now. Rather the key question here is “should we set up a real Death Cafe in London or not?” This could be rephrased, as “is setting up a real Death Café in London something we should try to do?”

If your answer is “yes” I will produce a business plan to accompany the community share offer. At this stage you will be able to judge whether you think it is viable or not.

I think our community is diverse but most of us don’t have much money and are careful how we spend it. So if we don’t think the real Death Café is viable based on the business plan then I am sure that we won’t succeed in raising the capital.

Both my instinct and belief are that a real Death Café would survive and be fabulous but only if there are a community of people who are willing to invest their time and money in bringing it about.

In the new year I will set up a poll on the site and people will be able to vote. If people vote we should do it then I will produce the business plan.

Many thanks for your time in terms of thinking about this, I hope you’re enjoying the discussion as much as I am :)

Jon


Posted by Jon Underwood

good idea

Dear Jon,

Since your call for considerations on a Death Cafe cafe in London I have hosted a DC in a cafe in Winchester, VA.

So, I have been considering your proposal. In a few ways I wondered how it would work, how it would be staffed and sustained with a passionate DC staff, then remembering that there are lots of people in London so that may not be an issue. Then I considered the "commercial" aspect of it, and decided that wasn't a problem either, London is a big city. Then I hoped that it would not be a "burnout" commitment for you...and figured you were in charge of that part, so no problem.

Then when I thought of a place where individual hosts like myself could go that was designed to have Death Cafes with the refreshments available, the tables and chairs available, and the ambiance one of good taste I thought it was a great idea. It could have several different areas available in place so that different groups could be there at one time. And for individuals who are exploring dying and death there would be a place for the dialogue.

So, my vote, is yes keep moving on with this idea.
Best wishes and good luck to you...
And once again, thank you so much for this venue, I think it is serving the communities and people beautifully, one Death Cafe at a time everywhere...

Mary Jane Lee


Posted by Mary Jane Lee


Jon, All the comments presented thus far are thoughtful and rich with wisdom. My ideas may be more superficial, but here goes.

I think a fixed death café is a good idea, and I'd love to visit London one of these days to experience your death café! You've outlined some excellent ideas for the café, as well as some goals.

That being said, I also have really enjoyed your attentiveness to the incredible worldwide movement of people talking about death that you are ushering along. You have created a fabulous web site and your guidance and tips here and there are invaluable. I'd hate to see your attention split between the fluid part of the movement and the structure of the building, which I believe will take a tremendous amount of focus.

Philosophically, I don't think it's a bad thing that the "movement", if you will, would have two facets: a fluid component and a crystallized component. There's room in the world for both.



Posted by deathcafenv


Jon,

I think this is a good idea but, as I reside in Christchurch and would not be able to support you, I worry about the stress involved. My experience with natural burial was that without my support community, mostly widows, a group that sometimes shielded me, I would have given up. Confidence is so necessary in order to keep driving forward. I have also found promoting my book R.I.P. Off! so very difficult to market. It is upsetting to find that local bookshops will promote book signings; if you write for children, crime or romance. I tried to hide the book under the humour genre but they quickly saw through that, and I was just not welcome. If I am in London I will support the cafe so I can only say best of luck in whatever you decide.


Posted by Ken West


Jon--

I have deep respect for you and the work you have led with Death Cafe. One reason Death Cafes have sprung up all over the world is that they strike a deep chord among people who want to discuss a topic that is common to us all but that is, to a large degree, taboo to discuss. Death Cafes speak to an unmet need.

Whether London needs another coffee, tea and cakes cafe is a matter of debate, no matter how it is themed. Death Cafes thrive now because they are largely exempt from the uncompromising forces of the marketplace. That won't be the case with a physical Death Cafe. You'll be selling products, not ideas. The skill sets of organizing and leading a world-wide movement of Death cafes and successfully operating a physical cafe do not intersect.
The history of business failure is littered with stories of companies that began by doing something very well and then decided to do something else--and found that they had lost their way.

I urge you not to do this, and to devote your considerable talent and energy to the heart of the work of Death Cafes, which is making space for changed values and behaviors around death.

Of course, if you do open a physical Death Cafe, I'll support it and stop in when I am in London; I'll even help to fund it. Nevertheless, I think there are better ways to further this cause.
warm regards,
Bill


Posted by William Palmer


Thoughts and reflections #1

Thanks everyone who has been thinking about this and sharing views.

It feels great to have put this out there. The responses seem to be very varied so far. Here are a few initial reflections from me.

One very good point from Bill was about skills: “The skill sets of organizing and leading a world-wide movement of Death cafes and successfully operating a physical cafe do not intersect.”

I certainly don’t have all the skills to open a physical Death Café myself but I now have a good idea of what the skills we need are. I am confident that if we work together we could either contribute or obtain them.

London has a vibrant coffee shop culture and cafes open all the time here. This year I have studied the market, discussed the proposal with a consultant from the London School of Coffee, a top coffee shop owner and many other people. I really don’t think opening up Death Café London is beyond us.

It was also suggested by Lia that we do some longer term pop up cafes. This is a really good suggestion. A pop up café is more nomadic, and community relationships are really important. There is less money involved. It is not the first time that this has been put forward.

However - and this is a personal view - a pop up café doesn’t feel right to me for the first physical manifestation of this project. I feel that a Death Cafe should humbly but unashamedly land in an accessible and diverse part of London. I would be fully in favour of developing a pop up model following this, but I think this would be a lot easier if there was a one initial location established first.

Thank you so much for your comment Ken. I know some of your work and know that you’ve made a great contribution to this field. I am sad to hear of your experience but to be honest it makes me think of how much we we need a real Death Cafe! It is a place where your work could be really seen and appreciated. You are supporting this project already through your comment and if you tell people and continue to share you’re thoughts it would be great.

Thanks Pat for your comment. I would like to hear more about the risks to the project.

All the best,

Jon


Posted by Jon Underwood

I wish there were a death cafe in central London. I'm 75 and travelling to Bermondsey is a bridge too far.

There must be people in
Zone 1 who would agree.

I'd be grateful for a reply.


Posted by horrypops


Learning is not one size fits all - so while the current format for Death Café is without a doubt successful it may not meet the needs of everybody. A permanent café would provide a different type of experience and so a different path to help even more people reach the objective of Death Cafés.
Now, is this a financially viable endeavour? only a comprehensive business plan with a thorough "due diligence" will answer that question. I also agree that a manager, and a management committee is the right governance model. Being from Montreal (Canada) not sure I understand the financing model of shareholders in a Community Benefit Society - what's in it for the shareholders if they can't share in the profits? Could the shareholders be international?
(2014/12/16)


Posted by Marie-France


Hi all. I think it could work, I saw a Board games cafe full of people in Oxford yesterday. There's also bike cafes. I think the problem is in central London the start up costs are huge, you need a big footfall or regular local clientele. How about looking at pop up longish term an existing hub type place ine Westminster Hub? Jon have you got a business plan you could show? Because this is a commercial venture, and whereas the current pop up one off is hugely popular, the same people may not be inclined to go to a Death Cafe on a daily basis. Happy to chat about it.


Posted by Zin walker


Hi Jon.

I have thought about this long and hard, both from the perspective of a Death Café devotee and as someone with 20 years experience in running my own restaurant and outside catering business.

Whilst I love the idea of a dedicated central London Death Café space and the additional aspects of it being community owned and not for profit, I fear for the financial viability of the project. It is true that we currently have a vibrant coffee shop culture and one of your contributors referred to the Cat Café which opened last year. It’s a valid point about the diversity of experience available in London, but I would suggest that cat people will want to go and pet cats every day, whereas most people, even supporters of the existing Death Café set up, may not want to go somewhere death related every day or even every week.

As it stands at the moment, I enjoy the nomadic, ad hoc style of Death Café in London and it has taken me to venues I wouldn’t have previously gone to. I have attended at points when I have specifically wanted to discuss death. The sessions had a set beginning and end and were facilitated. I knew that once the session was over I could either sit and continue to discuss with other attendees if I wished or, if I had reached saturation, I could leave quietly. I use regular coffee shops either as places to meet friends for a chat or as a quiet place to stop in a busy day and catch up with myself. With the dedicated Death Café concept, I feel like there may be an obligation to interact, that just by being there I’d feel committed to engaging if someone else caught my eye and wanted to chat, that it would become more about the death than the café. This is the root of my financial worry – if someone like me, who is committed to the work of the Death Café movement, has attended many across London and who promotes it among their friends and family has a concern about wanting to come to a dedicated café regularly, will there be enough of a mainstream market to support it or will it be lots of one time visitors just curious about the novelty of a café with death in its name?

I feel like I’m being very negative towards what could turn out to be a wonderful venture and I would, in any case, support and promote it as best I can. As a further thought, have you spoken to the people who are opening Coffee, Cake & Kisses (previously Coffee, Cake & Kink) on Warren Street using a Kickstarter? I wonder if they would be able to offer any advice in terms of pros, cons and logistics of opening and operating a café with a somewhat “marginal” theme.

Whatever the end decision I wish you every success.

Claire


Posted by Claire Shaw


I love the idea.

Setting up any coffee shop is a risk. However (for me) the risk is reduced due to what Death Cafe has managed to achieve in such a short amount of time. Death Cafe London's advantage over other coffee shops is it's philanthropic roots and the support of it's community..... I do feel however that the decor, vibe and location of the coffee shop will be paramount to it's success.

If you can build a successful coffee shop around Cats (http://ladydinahs.com) I am sure that Jon can around death!


Posted by James Norris


Here's a halfway house to consider. What about longer-running pop-up cafes lasting a few weeks or months? These could be run in temporarily unused council or commercial spaces, as pop-up shops are. The longer timescale would give you a chance to establish a presence in a neighbourhood and build some community relationships before you move on. If people actually want more, you could take on local volunteers and train them up to run the cafe as an autonomous satellite.


Posted by Lia Rees


Like many of the people here, I think the answer to the question of whether a permanent venue for a death cafe should go ahead is not a simple yes or no. Perhaps this is also not the question we should ask, as it does not ask, how will this be successful, if we do it. In speaking to a former cafe owner yesterday, it's clear that a financially successful operation has good regular customers that do more than buy a coffee and biscuit once in a while. To build a regular, paying customer base takes time and something special. I believe that Death Cafe has something special, nomadic or otherwise and that it will be able to question itself continuously to avoid becoming a dead space, metaphorically and physically. From my background I see the issues more practically, of financing the cafe during the time it takes to build a customer base. It is true that the community must need and want this, but it will not be this community physically running it, as has been noted by some great international supporters. The vision, hard work and management of the cafe will be on your shoulders Jon, and I also think you are very capable of doing this. I do see a gap at the moment between the vision for a real cafe (Jon's), the desire for this to be community run (on a day to day, practical basis, unlikely) and the needs and wants of the potential local customers which are not noted at all. Realistically, many ardent supporters on this web page will love that a real Death cafe exists, but will not be physically able to pop in for lunch every day or even attend as many events as we would like. So I like Lia's idea which I also note has been mentioned before, of having a more permanent space without the considerable financial burden of buying/renting somewhere. If the location ends up being less than perfect, this can be changed easily. Places with high footfall are expensive to rent, lower footfall and you risk never getting enough customers. Getting this right first time may be a high risk. Renting or using an alternative space at the start will gather vital information on whether the local community want this, and will allow you to try out different combinations of merchandise, food offerings etc etc. This will answer the real, key question I see that is "will paying customers come to a death cafe often enough to make this viable", which is the acid test of setting this up as a business.


Posted by Janet Fernihough


Family Celebrant

I see this as being hugely successful. Just the fact that we are all called "Death Cafe's" in our areas eludes to the fact that it is a physical location of a "cafe" per se. Although I live in the U.S. it is possible to support this venture thru your online sales. So many attendees have asked for Death Cafe merchandise - t shirts, mugs, etc. that they would like to buy. I also think it will enhance all the thousands of Death Cafes that are happening because we can say there is an actual one in London that you can visit! We will be able to read about what is happening there and share it with our attendees. I can also see authors who write books about death having book signings there. Groups renting meeting rooms who want to discuss end of life issues or near death experiences or planning for death. The possibilities are endless. Jon, you have my support, encouragement and admiration for taking on such a big project! If anyone can do it - it's YOU!


Posted by Anita Larson


mrs

i fully agree with the above statement - I like the idea of having a regular place to meet - like the cafe rouge in hampstead but making a business of it is highly risky.
saying that - I would support your efforts if you do go ahead with the physical death cafe idea


Posted by pat gregory


Hi Jon,

I like your idea in principle and I think our society needs it a lot. I'm nomadic, and uphold that idea of going where the spirit leads me. But I do think having a fixed space for Death Cafe as well, would give people a focus, somewhere to pluck up courage to go. They'd know where to find it, it wouldn't be so ephemeral e.g. for people who have to plan how to travel there.

Things I think you could usefully consider:
1) do you have any experience of cafes, the hospitality industry, food and hygiene regulations, dealing with nutty members of the public, electronic tills etc. If not, I hope you are a fast learner and respect the expertise of your competitors in the industry. Budget for courses for you to go on, plus one other person, so you are not indispensable.

2) beware of a management committee of the great, good or at least, well-meaning egos. They are, in my experience of being trustee of or working for various charitable organisations, a hindrance. If you are employed by Death Cafe, make sure you have one, named, effective, experienced person to report to, and maybe the option for outside 'supervision' (as in counselling-type supervision). And make sure you have a place on the committee. They will need to hear first hand what happens on a daily basis.
3) In the articles of association or whatever constitution you have, make sure there is an agreed way of dealing with disagreements including, as a last resort, bringing in outside mediators, arbitrators, conflict facilitators or whatever flavour appeals. Doing this BEFORE there are any disagreements/personality clashes is beneficial. I hope you never need it but iy costs nothing to put in the constitution.
4) Please keep me informed janet.shimmin@gmail.com. I might put a little money into it and I'd like to lead a workshop or session sometime, if possible.
5) Good luck with a courageous vision.
Jan Shimmin


Posted by Janet Shimmin


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