Beating the last great modern taboo

Facing up to the facts of death is never easy. Picture: Getty
Facing up to the facts of death is never easy. Picture: Getty
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As baby boomers reach old age, there will be an increased focus on death and end-of-life choices, writes David Clark

A couple of evenings ago I drove through the bright light of a Dumfriesshire spring evening. The trees were bursting into life and the rolling landscape was a patchwork of sharp greens. The scene was calming, but I was oddly anxious.

I was on the way to my first Death Café. I wasn’t sure how it would work out or who would be there. Worse still – I was the host. Talking about death and dying.

But the next two hours melted away. An assorted group of 20 people of different ages and backgrounds gathered together in the cosy atmosphere of the Thomas Tosh café in Thornhill – and talked about ageing, dying, bereavement, funerals, memorials – and much more.

Sipping coffee, munching on cake or tucking into scones – we were well fortified. But the caffeine and sugar didn’t explain the frankness, the careful listening and the easy flow of the conversation that took place round each table. Among people who were mainly strangers to one another.

I listened to the marvels of turning one’s ashes into a diamond. I heard stories of nursing a dying relative. My new companions shared their hopes and fears about when death approaches. We talked about the pleasures and pitfalls of ageing, family relationships in the face of dying, and the possibilities of a life beyond.

As our finishing time approached I had to encourage the participants to wind up their stories, reflect on what they had got out of the evening and make their way home. Stopping the flow proved no easy task.

So what is a Death Café?

The idea started ten years ago, when the sociologist Bernard Crettaz began hosting “Cafés Mortels” in Switzerland. More recently a Death Café “social franchise” has emerged with its own set of guiding principles, led by London-based Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid.

The Death Cafés have spread quickly across Europe, North America and Australasia. Approaching 2,000 events are known to have taken place.

In Scotland, first with help from the resourceful group Good Life, Good Death Good Grief, the idea is rapidly gaining support. Death Cafés have been held in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Argyll and Bute and are planned for Ayr and Perth. We have been asked to run some for college and university students. There seems to be no shortage of enthusiasts willing to organise an event and then step back and let the mortal conversation flow.

Why are Death Cafés catching on?

We are about to face a tidal wave of dying, death and bereavement. The baby boomers are moving into older age and will have much to say about the timing and the manner of their passing.

At the moment much of the debate is in the affluent west. But as the global population rises and gets older it is the low and middle income countries that will see the biggest increases – beyond the 40 million people who die there every year.

It seems appropriate to be talking about what this might mean for all of us, wherever we may live.

At the University of Glasgow we have recently started a project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, exploring the need for appropriate, effect and sustainable approaches to end-of-life care around the world.

Health professionals are much engaged in the need for “advanced care planning” when it comes to our end-of-life needs. But how do we know what the plan should look like? We seem to have so few opportunities to explore our hopes, fears and priorities for when time is short.

This is where the Death Café comes in. Perhaps it can fill a gap in our present social arrangements. If you can’t talk about these matters with your family, maybe the Death Café offers a non-threatening place to do so with other people?

As I drove home from Thornhill, through the dark of the evening, I felt oddly at peace. It was astonishing how well the Death Café had gone. I had a renewed sense of purpose about my fellow human beings – and their willingness to talk, share and listen with such mutual respect and attention.

The Death Café movement will not be the sole solution to the many challenges of ageing, dying and death.

But it is a low-cost and welcoming start to where we take the conversation.

David Clark is professor of medical sociology at the University of Glasgow (Twitter: @dumfriesshire)

For more information about the Death Café movement go to http://deathcafe.com/. For regular updates on the University of Glasgow study, go to: http://endoflifestudies.academicblogs.co.uk

Find the project website at: www.gla.ac.uk/endoflifestudies