Death Cafes Spread Rapidly Around the World

Jon Underwood held the first Death Cafe in 2011 at his East London home. This single event lit a movement that spread quickly to 82 countries, hosting over 15,000 Death Cafes on nearly every continent by 2023. What is a Death Cafe, and why is the world so interested?

Key takeaways:
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    Death Cafes are informal, social events where people talk freely about death without any agenda, objective, or theme.
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    Anyone can host a Death Cafe if they sign up to follow the Death Cafe guide.
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    Death Cafes are spreading rapidly around the world and attracting diverse attendees.
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    Many global and cultural factors combine to cause such rapid growth of Death Cafes.
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    Studies suggest talking about death in a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere is healthy.

What is a Death Cafe?

A Death Cafe is an informal social event where people, often strangers, get together to talk freely about death over cake and tea. As stated by the Death Cafe franchise, the mission is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

A host guides the gathering’s discussion to ensure there is no agenda, objective, or theme. Instead, the goal is to provide a free-flowing and open conversation about any aspect of death.

Technically, Death Cafe is a non-profit social franchise, meaning the Death Cafe founders oversee the movement’s branding, process, and mission. To use the name “Death Cafe,” one must register with the organization to plan and host a gathering.

A registered host must follow four Death Cafe principles as quoted from their website:

  • With no intention of leading participants to any conclusion, product, or course of action.
  • As an open, respectful, and confidential space where people can express their views safely.
  • On a not-for-profit basis.
  • Alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food — and cake.

What a Death Cafe is not

A Death Cafe is a grassroots event anyone can host. Since it’s a simple, free-flowing conversation, professional credentials to host aren’t required.

Death Cafes are not grief support groups or counseling sessions. They do not meet to promote the agenda of any ideology or end-of-life organization. Hosting a theme-related gathering, inviting guest speakers, or handing out educational materials is against the Death Cafe guide.

Hosts allow people to talk about their beliefs about death but do not allow participants to press others to agree. Instead, the conversation is a curious exploration about dying to help people live now and gain greater peace.

Death Cafes attract diverse people

Because Death Cafes touch a vulnerable place in the human heart, the gathering reaches beyond race, culture, and nationality.

In 2020, a team of researchers from the University of Glasglow published a study on the global spread of Death Cafes. They interviewed 49 Death Cafe hosts in 34 countries to explore how and why the event spread globally.

The team's study confirmed the spread of the Death Cafe movement from the UK to North America, Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa, providing evidence that the movement attracts diverse attendees.

The café hosts reported a wide range of participant ages. Attendees varied from teenagers to 80-year-olds, sometimes in one group, while the hosts’ ages ranged from 20-70.

In gatherings of 2-70 people, the participants were primarily women, but men also found the topic engaging.

The location of Death Cafes was diverse, too. According to the study, the cafes “took place in pubs, function rooms, leisure centers, people’s homes, and even cemeteries.”

Why are Death Cafes growing so fast?

Like birth, death is a universal human experience. However, unfortunately, our ideas about death are heavily cloaked in personal fears and cultural beliefs, creating taboos and mysteries we’re afraid to question or discuss.

Beyond personal beliefs, today’s medical industry treats death as a medical event rather than a sacred human experience. In addition, many communities now leave deathcare — the care of the human body after death — to medical and funeral professionals behind closed doors.

When you add these factors to the COVID-19 pandemic, a large baby boomer generation, rising chronic illness rates, and the relentless mental health crisis, it’s not surprising curiosity about death grows worldwide.

At the same time, cultural movements like death positivity, palliative care, and green burial options increase the safety of talking about death. More people today question their spiritual traditions, too, leaving them to wonder more about the dying process and the afterlife.

Medical assistance in dying (MAID) is growing globally as countries like Canada loosen their rules. More people are thinking about medically-assisted death — also called death with dignity and physician-assisted suicide — even if they’re not near the end-of-their lives.

The compounding effect of all these factors leaves a gaping human need to talk about death and dying. That energy for discussion and connection drives the growth of Death Cafes worldwide.

Talking about death is healthy

As death awareness grows globally, so does the science. Experts and researchers today argue that talking about death is good for you. It helps you clarify your beliefs on quality of life both now — even if you’re young — and when you’re dying.

However, talking about death isn’t easy. People’s desire to face the subject varies widely. Death Cafes seem to help those eager to talk about it as well as those afraid of the discussion.

In the University of Glasgow’s study, hosts reported that “strangers are just opening up,” and conversations happen without “a single minute of silence throughout those two hours.”

The increasing number of Death Cafes is anecdotal evidence that people find talking about death worth their time. In a socially enjoyable setting where it’s safe to work through your thoughts and beliefs without judgment and dogmatism, Death Cafes help people face the subject.

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life."

Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement speech in 2005

Finding or hosting a Death Cafe

Finding a Death Cafe is simple. Visit the online Death Cafe map to find one located near you.

If you can’t find a nearby gathering, consider hosting one. The Death Cafe franchise is clear about how to organize and lead a discussion. Visit their webpage for hosts and walk through the steps to gathering people together.

The human need to talk and connect is the thread binding generations, races, and cultures throughout history as it weaves through time. Death's reality and mystery bind us in a common and intimate experience. Death Cafes offer people a friendly setting to explore and break death taboos without judgment.

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