On a sunny afternoon in Fitzroy, up three steep and rickety flights of stairs, an unlikely group of people meet in a whitewashed studio room overlooking busy Gertrude Street.
There are people from all walks of life here; Buddhists, mixing with atheists and sceptics, sharing cakes and cups of tea. Though disparate in background and outlook, they are united by a reality that confronts ultimately all creatures — death. And it is death that they have come to talk about.
This is a so-called ‘Death Cafe’, part of a global movement aimed at encouraging engagement with one of life’s biggest events — and greatest of mysteries. The irregular get-togethers are a not-for-profit initiative, although hosts may ask for a small donation to cover set-up costs.
The stated objective of the movement, according to its website, is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” The premise is equally simple: over plates of sweet and savoury treats, strangers gather to chat openly about death, laying bare their beliefs, hopes, fears and the reasons behind them, in an environment free of agenda, judgement and restriction. By starting the conversation, organisers hope to challenge society’s taboo around talking about death, and encourage more open discussion about life’s inevitable end.
Seated around a small white table adorned with fruit buns, mud cake and a handful of books bearing titles such as ‘Dying for a Chat’, the discussion kicks off, somewhat hesitantly at first, before gathering pace as those present grow increasingly confident.
“It’s conversation and cake – to sweeten the topic!” laughs Pia Interlandi, a guest at the Fitzroy meeting and a veteran of such events. “It’s very casual and very relaxed. I don’t find them at all morbid.”
The initiative was started in 2011 when founder Jon Underwood, inspired by a similar event held in Paris, hosted his first Death Cafe at his home in London. From these humble beginnings, the movement spread to the United States, before gathering momentum globally: there have been more than 900 Death Cafes held since that first meeting in September, 2011. And there seems no denying their appeal, as the gatherings’ laid back treatment of an often discomforting topic attracts both newcomers and seasoned attendees.
Annie Whitlocke, the moderator of the Fitzroy gathering, reckons around 25 Death Cafes have been held locally since the initiative reached Australia’s shores in 2012. Several more are looming, with another host alone having planned a further four events in 2014.
As well as being a Death Cafe host, Ms Whitlocke (pictured above) works as a pastoral carer at Monash Medical Centre, teaches meditation to cancer patients and is a funeral celebrant. But she considers caring for her mother, who has dementia, to be her most important role as she seeks to ensure that her mother is comfortable to the end.
Ms Whitlocke converted to Buddhism more than 30 years ago, appreciating one of its central teachings about the impermanence of all things, including the human body. The notion strengthened her belief that death needs to be acknowledged as a natural and even beautiful part of life.
“Our society has become death phobic, death denying and age phobic,” she says. “Any wonder people are hesitant to talk about something that is so normal yet has been labelled an error, a mistake, embarrassing.”
A vivid turning point in her perception of society’s taboo came when Ms Whitlocke witnessed the passing of her aunt who, in spite of her relatives’ silence on the subject of death, had a burning desire to speak about her imminent demise.
Ms Whitlocke recognised a similar need in the community to talk about dying. She began hosting Death Cafes to address this need, by providing a comfortable and welcoming environment in which to discuss the inevitable conclusion to life.
“As soon as we are born we get a death sentence, it is unavoidable,” she says matter-of-fact. “Some make it to old-age, many don’t. If we don’t make our allotted seven score years we feel we have been cheated.”
In spite of the community’s apparently negative attitude towards death, Ms Whitlock has found that Death Cafes are, in fact, quite popular. In 2013, she assisted in hosting a Death Cafe at the Melbourne Fringe Festival.
“It was booked out for three nights. People from all walks of life came and we talked, listened, laughed and shared.”
Importantly, Ms Whitlocke explains, Death Cafes are “not a grief or counselling session”. The events are simply designed to encourage conversation around one of the few certainties in life, and even perhaps a little mirth as people bein to appreciate that there can be humour in death, too.
As moderator of the Fitzroy gathering, Ms Whitlocke manages to guide the discussion, gently asking questions that elicit strong feelings, while also stressing the confidentiality of people’s reflections. The guests are ready participants, honest and happy to offer their views. Like their host, many have had experiences of death, whether through the loss of family members, or in their line of work.
Dr Interlandi is one such attendee. She is the founder, director and designer for Garments for the Grave, a company that specialises in providing environmentally conscious clothing for the dead – clothing that will escort them to the grave or for cremation. Dr Interlandi, who is also an academic and funeral celebrant who has been to several Death Cafes, says they are all unique in terms of the range of people gathered and the topics traversed.
As someone who works in the death industry, she says she finds the events allow her to get to know others who are involved while offering her own experiences and knowledge in “a communal sharing of ideas and tea.” She believes the casual setting of the cafe facilitates understanding and communication around what is perceived to be a difficult topic, but one that affects everyone.
“It’s happening to every one of us,” Dr Interlandi says. “It’s the only thing, after birth, that unites us.”
The number and diversity of those present in the upstairs studio illustrates the point, as the gathering offers up interesting tales about the way death is treated across different cultures and agrees generally that much of the phobia surrounding death comes down to culture. Participants from other countries speak of games, picnics and celebrations of life that accompany funerals back home, ideas that are foreign to some others. Ms Whitlocke believes this reflects the way in which mortality is treated in Western culture.
“Since the mid-20th century, society started to treat the dying behind closed doors and in hospitals,” she explains. “Before then, it was sad but normal for a person to die at home, then each generation of that family would know that this is part of what family is about, part of what life is about.”
She adds: “Death is not a mistake, not an error. It happens to everything.”
Therapist Cherie Scott feels that the taboo nature of death comes down to how the issue is addressed in everyday life.
“We live in a polarised paradigm, where birth is beautiful, death is a tragedy. We [believe we] should live a long time. If we don’t, it’s really sad. Our learned way of being is to not talk about it. Death Cafes are an attempt to get around the taboo.”
Part of the problem, Ms Scott adds, is the language used to talk about death and dying. The concepts are framed in war-like terms, she notes, giving examples: “Bob lost his battle with cancer” or “Jane fought til the end”.
“Our universal destiny is death [and yet] it’s viewed as awful to grow old and get frail.”
But, she adds, there is a detectable shift; the recent popularity of ‘bucket lists’, as well as the global success of Death Cafes, shows that people are aware of the need to make the most of their finite time. Usually, she says, people leave the Death Cafe feeling grateful for the opportunity to speak about and explore an uncomfortable topic.
“I find Death Cafes life affirming, not death affirming. Talking about death won’t kill you.” — Annie Whitlocke, moderator of a Death Cafe in Fitzroy
On this afternoon in Fitzroy, the situation is no different. As the last crumbs of cake are licked from fingers and the suds from the dish soap began to bubble, the Death Cafe draws to a close.
And there are no tears. Instead, people are smiling amid peals of laughter and offers to take home leftovers or to assist with cleaning. Phone numbers and contact details are exchanged. This group of strangers, after two hours, have emreged as kindred spirits. As the attendees descend the twisting staircase, the mood is palpably upbeat.
“[You] walk out feeling very uplifted,” says Ms Interlandi.
Ms Whitlocke smiles as she piles up plates for cleaning. Gesturing around her, she acknowledges the love that engulfs the room. “I find Death Cafes life affirming, not death affirming. Talking about death won’t kill you.”