Report on the Death Café at Café Rouge, Hampstead, London, on 16 September 2013
This Death Café held on a pleasant September evening was fully booked – overbooked - but not all 42 people attended and so I think we were pretty much down to 30 or so, the normal capacity for the room.
The evening was wonderful, inspirational, moving and a positive experience all round. Cj Swaby, Liz Wong, Thom Osborn and I each facilitated a table. Halfway through the evening we took a break. We ended the evening with a ‘plenary’. On Thom’s suggestion, we made a large circle, everyone facing into the room so we could see each other. This plenary was a closing circle and a chance for anyone willing to speak to say whatever they felt the need to say, reflecting on their experience of the evening. It was very satisfying to come together like this at the end, as ‘one group’.
Like previous Death Cafes, the feedback given was exceptionally positive. See below. Some participants had come for the first time but quite a number of them had come several times. I asked two women and two men to say something about their experience of the evening and why it is that they come back again and again. Here is what they said:
Bernie, 42, Marketing and Market Research within academic publishing:
I have attended 4 or 5 Death Cafes, my first quite some time ago now. I wasn't sure what drove me to my first other than a keen interest in exploring the often taboo subject of death with like-minded individuals. I also read a blog post from someone with a terrible fear of death who'd attended one and proclaimed it more beneficial than several counselling sessions, so I was hooked really! I wasn't sure if I belonged there when I arrived. The others had experienced a lot more death than I had. I realised fairly quickly though, that it was the fear of my aging parents death one day that was bubbling along under the surface. Here was somewhere I could not only say that, but then go on to explore it safely without needing to protect those I was speaking with.
Since then, each Death Cafe has shed some light on another different concern that I have not been conscious of prior to the Cafe or had not been equipped to explore anywhere. These vary but have included thinking about how my autistic son may experience bereavement and grief and how I want to die when the time comes. I return time and again because I meet all kinds of people with interesting stories or insights, I hear about amazing books and I learn each time more about how to listen to and hear others. This listening has become very precious to me and I know making time for it is doing me good. Life moves on with illnesses, relationship breakdowns, redundancies and I find that amongst all of that and in all I do, the consciousness of my certain death is always hovering above and guiding me to have perspective and not waste any opportunity or any crises. It works. Memento Mori!
Death Cafe contemplations always lead to talk about living, and leave many feeling liberated and relieved to have found somewhere to openly talk about what to many of us is fascinating: how to live life with eyes and hearts open and be ready when our time comes.
Jo, 50, retired psychotherapist:
I have an incurable and aggressive cancer and spend a lot of time thinking about my death. At times it seems surreal and at other times it feels very real and uncomfortably close. I can feel quite alone and experience it as a burden and emotionally exhausting when I talk about it with my family and friends, particularly when I "confess" I want to kill myself before I really begin to go downhill and suffer. It was with a mixed sense of intrigue and relief when a friend told me about the Death Cafe. He believed, as I did that there would be others facing a terminal illness. I didn't expect others to have the same stance and beliefs as me but I was shocked to discover at the second Cafe I attended that there was no one else in my situation. Indeed it appears quite unusual for people in my situation to attend. I am no longer shocked, I am more curious to understand why this is so. Am I unusual wanting to attend a place to talk about death at this moment in my life when I am close to my own death? Are people in my situation isolated? Do they talk about it? Do they want to talk about it? And if they do, are there people they feel they can talk to?
My two experiences of the Cafe have been positive, though not without their challenges. It was great attending the Cafe with a dear friend and I found it liberating to talk about my death and wishes for my death to strangers who were so open to talking about the subject. I did not experience the same emotional constraints compared to talking to people I love and who love me. However, knowing I am going to die soon is challenging and suicide is challenging. It is challenging for me and I want to do it and I was very aware of the resistance to the idea from some people at my table even though they were respectful and tried not to judge.
I didn't meet anyone who was in the same position as me, but I still met wonderful people from whom I drew great comfort, support and inspiration. In fact, I left feeling quite enlivened by the experience.
Thom, 82, co-operative structures. Has worked with groups and organisations, also film and theatre.
I have known Josefine, and knew Nicholas (Albery), for many decades. And for a few years around the turn of the century I ran several 'Video-Message' workshops for the Natural Death Centre. So my connection goes back a long way. And I have always felt it helpful and refreshing to be able to talk about death without too much inhibition.
But over the course of the past year, three things especially have prompted me to come to the Death Café meetings. First, I have been making a website - not a personal archive (it had other purposes) but inevitably it connected me with a lifetime of materials - 'stuff' not thrown away which now needs sorting - in fact it feels like a 'job' or task to 'sort out my affairs' in preparation for my own death and not leave too much mess behind. Second, one of my dear daughters had a life-threatening diagnosis - fortunately, after an operation, followed by radiotherapy and a programme of chemotherapy treatments over several months, she is much better, one can never say totally healed but out of the woods for now. And thirdly, I myself have suffered from a failure of a medication which has worked for some 18 years, and needing to try another.
So I have wanted to come to a situation where others also have the desire to be able to talk and exchange about death and dying. I also enjoy meeting some people of my own generation who seem lively and interesting. And, it is often said that accepting death, facing death, talking about death, can be an invigorating path to enjoying life.
I do usually feel invigorated after these 'Death Cafés - I think Death Café is a good name! They also help me to bring the issue into other conversations, which I want to be able to do (sensitively I hope).
John, 68, writer and psychotherapist:
My family were always gloomy about death and life passing by so quickly. It made me very aware of my own mortality at an early age and in a sense death has 'loomed over me' all my life.
However, through my own experiences and research I came to realise that life and death are two sides of the same coin. You are always rubbing shoulders with death whether you are 9 or 90. So I decided that it was far better to face up to it and explore it than deny it, as so many people do in our society.
At the Death Cafe I have been fortunate to meet many wonderful people who, through their own experiences of losing loved ones or increasing intimations of their own mortality, have been willing to share and to offer insights into death and its many aspects, as well as the afterlife.
The conversation, the camaraderie and the intimacy have been a real blessing and have helped me move forward on my own journey towards accepting death and embracing it as an integral and necessary part of life. As Steve Jobs said, 'Death is the destination we all share'. So don't let's run from it - let's celebrate it!
Total of 28 feedback sheets returned:
Men: 7 Women: 21
Where did you hear about this event?
Internet: 4; the press: 2; radio; 2; via friend: 7; via Josefine: 6
Average age: 50.5 WOMEN: 48 (26 – 82); MEN: 59 (50 – 82)
What is your profession?
Women: 1 chaplain, 2 teachers, 2 retired, 5 therapists, 4 managers, 2 charity worker, 2 artists, 2 death doulas, 1 writer.
Men: PhD student, writer, Strategy consultant, retired filmmaker, teacher, builder, psychotherapist.
Overall, how would you rate this event? (10 = excellent, 1 =poor):
Women: 9.9 Men: 9.1 Average: 9.7
How did you rate the venue: Women: 9.2 Men: 8.6 Average: 9
How did you rate the food and drink? Women: 9.7 Men: 8.6 Average: 9.4
How did you rate the facilitation? Women: 8.5 Men: 8.6 Average: 8.7
What did you appreciate about the event?
Interest, vibrancy, fun, emotion and honesty. Made me focus on stuff I need to confront.
Very helpful and different to last time
Stimulating and helpful
To our mutual surprise we recognised our humanity and smiled
Just very rich and enjoyable (!) and fascinating.
Very interesting and educational.
Inspiring rewarding. Great!
Informality, openness, variety of people.
Overall, the sense of communion. I belong to no particular faith, but well here it is,. People are fascinating, aren’t we?
The honesty and respectful attitude of each person who attended.
The honesty and authenticity of people’s stories and discussion . We talked about some painful stuff. The experience feels very positive.
I await the ripple effect, but the chance to open and approach a subject that is taboo and painful in order to have real insights and healing and to share and feel connection with others on their own journey and discoveries about death.
The openness and honesty and felt I had a lot in common.
Being able to talk openly and share with others.
The honesty, willingness to share, the intimacy.
The openness, the exchange and diversity of opinion.
The respect and honesty of all people at the table. I also appreciated the different points of view.
Open communication about death. People of different ages and for different reasons talking about death.
The relaxed ambience, the skilled facilitation, the instant rapport on our table, the openness and honesty of the discussion, the listening courtesy of participants.
Intimacy and openness re death and dying.
There was an unexpected amount of laughter. A fabulous, non-judgemental environment to share (and learn from) experiences and opinions. Loved it! Life-affirming and death-affirming.
The possibility to share very personal and special things with strangers. The capacity to share this with my dad. The excellent facilitation on our table and the range of views and ideas, I feel genuinely filled with new possibilities and excitement.
I am always humbled by the willingness of people to share and open around the sensitive subject of death. It invites and encourages and transforms this subject from the hidden to the revealed.
The ability to be open and honest and to hear views which opened my mind. Also to feel safe in the environment created so carefully by Josefine.
Deep sharing, openness, varied points of view, realisations.
Was there any aspect of the event you were dissatisfied with or felt uncomfortable about and wished it had been different in some way, and how?
12 said waiters were noisy and general noise level made hearing difficult
Interruption from waiting staff were changing the vibe
3 said food a bit expensive
A larger room to avoid noise?
Earlier arrival time to get noisy waiters and disruptions out of the way
More (whole) group exchange
How would you sum up your experience of the event in a sentence or two?
Really enlivening. Wasn’t sure if I could last the evening, so feel good.
Essential reflection on the truth that it is later than we think.
An experience to be able to share with others in a safe environment.
Relaxed, comfortable space.
Good exchange of ideas.
A most interesting and convivial evening. A very comfortable forum to share and explore a subject which is often suppressed.
This was my first Death Café and it was as good as I was hoping it to be with lots of open conversation and learning about myself and others.
I found the experience inspirational, thought provoking. I am leaving fulfilled and listened to.
As before, enlightening, extremely thought provoking.
Feel rejuvenated, part of a community.
Enlivening and enlightening.
Very interesting and educational.
Inspiring, rewarding, great!
Wonderful , life-affirming.
I found it very helpful and different to last visit.
Refreshed, inspired, touched, open-minded.
Extremely stimulating, refreshing and healing. Invigorating and beautiful to witness others being so heartfelt, authentic and empathetic.
Moving, liberating, interesting. In talking about death it seemed to enable a more honest communication that was full of our individual aliveness.
Enlightening, touching and thought provoking.
Very helpful I had concerns and was searching for answers. I have gone away with some useful thoughts.
The topic leads to all the things that matter. A short cut to deep conversation.
Enlightening and challenging. Surprisingly so, I feel like I am opened to a lot more possibilities.
Beautiful, truthful, death always invites truth in.
Mind opening and giving solace.
Somewhat to our mutual surprise I think we recognised our humanity.
Simulating and helpful.
Interesting, captivating, illuminating and thought provoking.
I found it very interesting to listen to other people’s personal stories.
It was great to meet both old and new people at the café. I enjoyed the plenary session , which was a new experience at the Death Café.