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Grab a Drink, Take a Seat and Let’s Talk About Death

It's a warm July evening in Tuscon, Arizona; the sinking sun provides a poignant backdrop to the group of people gathering in the courtyard outside the Monterey Court Café and Galleries.

All told, around two dozen men and women, ranging in age from late 20s to nearly 90, are in attendance. Some have brought their dogs, others their spouses, all have come for a single purpose: to talk about death.

It is the ninth official meeting of the Friendly and Fearless Death Café.

Yes, a Death Café—not a place, but a purpose-driven get-together for people who want to eat, drink, and have an open discussion about death and dying.

The group was created by Kristine Bentz. As a life-cycle celebrant and the founder of the life milestone celebration company, Sweetgrass Ceremonies, Bentz is used to helping families commemorate the lives of deceased loved ones. In starting the Friendly and Fearless group, she wanted to open up the topic of death and reduce the stigma that surrounds it.

"The idea appealed to me because safe and relaxed spaces to talk about death and dying are fairly non-existent in our western culture," she says.

An imported idea

If the concept of a place where people sit down and talk about humanity's mortality seems slightly foreign, that's because it is.

The origins of the Death Café movement lie in Europe, where there exists the long-standing tradition of people coming together to dialogue about science, philosophy and other intellectual topics. Taking his cue from this custom, Swiss sociologist, Bernard Crettaz began setting up "Café Mortel" meetings where people could come and talk about the most intellectually confounding topic of all—death.

In 2011, self-styled "death entrepreneur," Jon Underwood, adopted his own version of Crettaz's Death Café concept, and took the idea mainstream. Since then, nearly 100 Death Café meetings have been held in countries ranging from the U.S. to Australia.

Anyone can host a Death Café meeting. Underwood calls the movement a "social franchise," meaning participants agree to adhere to certain rules (i.e. meetings are free of charge, held in an accessible, yet private, space and are never geared towards coercing a person to think a certain way) in exchange for using the Death Cafe name and philosphy.

Dining, drinks and discussions about death

Each Death Café meeting is uniquely styled, though there are a few common elements.

Death Cafés may be held in a public area, such as an actual café or restaurant. Other times, people may gather at a person's home, or a local community center. A facilitator plans different activities and leads discussions. Also, true to the café concept, refreshments are a key component in these gatherings. 

Most importantly, participants are held to a standard of discussion that is both understanding and tolerant of different religious and spiritual beliefs. Judgment has no place in a Death Café.

But there the similarities end. Each gathering has a flexible schedule, or a set of loose guidelines meant to ease the flow of conversation.

One gathering may see participants breaking up into small groups to tackle loaded questions such as, "How do you want to be remembered?" (Learn how an ethical will or legacy letter can help you pass on your values and beliefs to the next generation.)

At another get-together, members take a "Death Anxiety Quiz" individually and then come together to share and compare results. Bentz says she's also heard of people screening a movie about death and discussing it afterwards, or even hosting a death dinner party.

"Some people have never had conversations about death before," says Bentz, who laments the fact that western culture doesn't often give people an opportunity to explore their feelings about the taboo topic. "We either deny death altogether or keep the topic stuffed into some breathless compressed chamber of our beings until the conversation is either emotionally charged or laden with rushed pragmatism that stunt real exploration."

For caregivers especially, ignoring your true feelings is an unhealthy coping mechanism.

It's not entirely surprising that people tend to shy away from talking about a subject that is so shrouded in mystery and anxiety. Fear of death ranks second on the list of top phobias—right behind fear of public speaking—according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH).

A place to be open and vulnerable

Exploring the questions and emotions surrounding death in an honest, non-judgmental fashion is the primary driver behind each Death Café gathering.

This unprejudiced approach opens up the conversation enough to admit people from a variety of spiritual and cultural backgrounds. As well as those in different stages of their life journey.

Attendees of the Fearless and Fun Death Café have included people taking care of elderly family members, individuals who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses, and people of all ages who want to dig a little deeper into the beliefs they have about death.

The only people who may not find the conversations in a Death Café productive are those who have experienced a recent loss. Bentz says that it's important to keep in mind that Death Cafés are very different from grief support groups. "We are at more of a distance, like being in a helicopter looking at death as a concept on the ground, rather than being right on the ground beside it," she says.

Depending on their situation and willingness to explore their thoughts about death, each individual participant will gain something different from attending a Death Café meeting. For example, an adult child who is having trouble having a conversation with their elderly parents about end of life issues may gain clarity and new insights simply by discussing their troubles in a group setting.

One of the most impactful encounters Bentz experienced at one of Friendly and Fearless' meetings involved a young man in his late 20s. The man had spent years trying to cope with the loss of his father, who had died when he was a boy.

According to Bentz, the young man was having trouble working up the courage to talk to his mother about the circumstances surrounding his father's death. After attending several meetings, the young man was finally able to discuss his father's death with his mother.

Bentz is purposely vague out of respect for the young man's privacy, but she says that his account of the discussion with his mother was filled with such gratitude that it still gives her goose bumps. "Talking about death makes us vulnerable, yes?" she asks.

What do you think about the Death Café concept? Would you attend a gathering to discuss death? What kinds of death-related issues would you talk about? Could you be open and honest in a room full of strangers?

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