Michelle is completing a Masters of Advanced Journalism at UTS. Areas of interest include religion, spirituality and cultural diversity.
A growing international trend in Death Cafes has spread to Australia where people gather over coffee to openly discuss all things death and dying.
Separate from grief support or counselling groups, Death Cafes allow individuals of all faiths and backgrounds to talk about death without judgement. A Death Café facilitator gently guides the conversation but no topic is off limits.
Dr Michele Knight, who’s completed a PhD on bereavement and previously worked in pastoral care, became a Death Café facilitator because she was dissatisfied with the community response to her grief after her husband’s death.
Dr Knight runs Death Cafe Marrickville each month in various Sydney cafes. She says the assumption Death Café is morbid is “understandable” but “superficial.”
“You realise how reluctant people are to talk about death or how uncomfortable they are around someone who’s grieving. People don’t know what to say, they don’t know what to do… I realised that there just wasn’t a lot of support, there wasn’t understanding.”
“I know when people come here, they can ask questions and feel supported. And that was something that I didn’t have when I was going through my bereavement… I would’ve given anything to have that, to be with people who were okay if I wanted to talk about my dead husband… [Death Café] addresses the social isolation that death can actually catapult a person into.”
“I think it’s really important to demystify death. We’re frightened. And death isn’t pleasant. It’s not nice. It is scary. But I think if we can have conversations around death, the fear starts to ebb away and we start to become more comfortable with our mortality. And when you contemplate your death, by default you contemplate your life and how you live.
"People often say [experiencing] a death event has been the catalyst for [them] living a more meaningful life.”
“Death Café is not morbid. People laugh a lot. You’d be amazed how jovial the conversation can actually be.”
Inspired by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, Jon Underwood pioneered the Death Café model in the UK. Since September 2011, over over 5000 death cafes have been held in ,ore than 50 countries including more than 200 Death Cafes in Australia.
Lizzy Miles who ran the first Death Café in the US, believes they have become an international trend because they address a “need” to talk about death.
“I think there’s people out there that do want to talk and they’re surrounded by friends and family that say, “don’t be morbid”. And so Death Café creates that safe place for people who have things on their mind to… have the conversations.”
Lizzy says she is “forever indebted” to Jon Underwood who, as the founder of the Death Cafe concept, guided her through the process of being a facilitator. Jon died unexpectedly in June this year.
“Jon was always reassuring and he always helped me with any questions that I had. And then as it began to expand in the United States and other countries, Jon and I would talk about just trying to stay true to the original intent, with the idea that it’s a safe place for people to have open discussion with no topics and no agenda and no ideology. And I’m so grateful that Jon and I were really aligned on that ideal of how simple it could be and how simple it should be. So I’m really, really sad that he’s gone.”
In her a academic research, Dr Paula Baldwin has found Death Cafes help attendees talk about death more openly with their families.
Dr Baldwin, who has also held her own Death Cafes, says the superstition around talking about death prevents people from discussing it.
“[People] do not want to talk about death because to talk about death is to invite death in… Like somehow talking about death is going to make somebody die.”
Dr Baldwin says this unwillingness to confront death has serious consequences for those who are dying and their loved ones.
“By not acknowledging that the person is dying you might push for extended treatment and that can be quite painful.”
“When you are dying and you die, that’s final. So let’s say you have some unresolved issues with your family. The opportunity to make amends, to have those final conversations are missed if you don’t acknowledge that you’re dying.”