Death, As Discussed Over Coffee And Chocolate Cake

I was intrigued by the flyer. The Death Café, it explained, was “where people gather to eat delicious cake and discuss mortality as a means to making the most of life”. Illustrating the evening’s event, titled “Mortal Monday”, was a Gary Larson cartoon of a cone-headed, cone-nosed couple, named the Arnolds, feigning death, in crime-TV fashion, until their neighbors, “…sensing awkwardness, are compelled to leave”.

It was not the advert I expected for a discussion of the Final Act. But I like cake; I like life and Gary Larson cartoons. I hadn’t given mortality much thought, other than a knee-jerk urge to postpone it, and the thought of it, as long as possible. Despite this, I felt ready to give a discussion about mortality a go. I RSVP’d Sean O’Connor, the organizer of a Cape Town Death Café. This group met monthly at food impresario Karen Dudley’s restaurant, The Dining Room, in Woodstock.*

It was sounding more like a foodie’s forum than a discussion on death.

I’d learned about the gatherings through an SABC radio interview with O’Connor. I was intrigued by the idea of a casual forum in which strangers discuss death. Somehow the concept of exploring end of life, accompanied by cake and tea, sounded both decadent and subversive. Founded in 2011 by a Brit, Jon Underwood, the Death Café is a worldwide phenomenon where people gather on a not-for-profit basis to talk about the inevitable end-stop for all humans.

According to www.DeathCafe.com, there have been 5 223 Death Cafés offered in 51 countries, as of the date of writing. The website profiles Death Cafés in places as diverse as Sao Paolo, Cape Cod, Costa Rica and Munich.If the popularity of the Death Café is any indication, a desire to discuss the end of life and how we spend the time we have left appears universal. I was intrigued to talk about my own or a loved one’s death without its being considered a depressing topic. Since we all will experience it, whether we like it or not, avoiding the topic seems imprudent, if not escapist.

I was unsure whether I had the vocabulary or emotional disposition to talk mortality. I would soon find out.

On Monday evening, I pitched at the restaurant, where several small tables with six to eight chairs each were arranged; an array of teacups and saucers covered one table, and a magnificent-looking chocolate cake was displayed on another. I felt as if I was at a coffee house to hear acoustic guitar or poetry – not discuss the Grim Reaper. O’Connor, the facilitator, explained the rules for us newbies: no speeches or pamphlets. It’s not a grief or trauma group. It’s not-for-profit; he requested a R50 donation for the coffee and cake, and pointed to a jar. Be respectful and tolerant. If you feel you’re monopolizing the conversation, stop talking and let others speak. He explained that we’d take a break mid-point for refreshments.

Underwood based the Death Café concept on the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who developed Café Mortels, where strangers convened to discuss mortality and share food and drink. The idea was to counter the “tyrannical secrecy” around death. After, we could switch tables or stay put, depending on how we felt. It sounded straightforward and civilized, and like a party game.

We launched into the topic immediately. You’re not going to the Death Café for small talk about the weather or water shortage. What my table mates said variously informed, amused, bored and intrigued me. People were earnest, funny and sad. We talked about our own dying, as well as how others’ deaths had or would compel us to face our own mortality, take stock and change course. O’Connor rang a gong – he called it his death knell – midway, to signal cake. It was an extravagant chocolate creation spiked with Guinness. Tea, coffee and light conversation flowed.

That something decadent and pleasurable – and associated with Marie Antoinette – was part of the evening provided a Mary-Poppins-Spoonful-of-Sugar moment.

After cake, we resumed. I was surprised, for a death discussion, how much time we spent talking about life, its joys, its sorrows and what we wanted to accomplish while we still had the time, and whom we wanted to shield from our death or whose death we feared the most. Many of us had experience with serious illness or diagnosis, whether personally or via someone else; some had lost a parent, sibling or friend; some worried about their young children, should they die. Others wondered whether anyone would care whether they died. These were pervasive themes, I realized, along with the fleeting nature of life.

O’Connor hosted his first Death Café in November 2016, and has done so more or less monthly since. He’s had up to 40 people attend, but numbers generally range between 15 and 25 per evening. While participants have ranged from the ages of 18 to 75, O’Connor notices a predominance of 40 to 50-somethings. Perhaps middle age, when illness and injury may appear for the first time or become chronic, or when the death, aging or illness of a parent or child looms, is when death gets on one’s radar. The group, both at my first and second Death Café, comprised a range of ages from mid-20s to late 60s. Men and women were evenly represented. Several café-goers came together, but many, as I did, arrived alone. I met one married couple. Several were coming to the Death Café for the first time. Many were repeaters. One man told me he’d had a first date at a Death Café.

What surprised me, aside from how joyful and invigorating my Death Café visits were, was the reaction of others when I mentioned going. Some thought a venue to talk mortality a grand idea, and wanted to know how they could attend. Others said: “Why would you want to talk about that?” Naysayers refused to believe that the discussion could be uplifting or comforting.

For me, a discussion about death was a life-affirming experience.

I realized I am less fearful about my own dying than the death of my daughter or others. The recent diagnosis of a younger cousin’s aggressive breast cancer, an aged cousin’s funeral, and a near miss with a car while driving my daughter to school were reminders that it is around the corner, waiting. Paradoxically, that gives life meaning and urgency. Living life, while recognizing my mortality, makes me more grateful for what I have and gives incentive to live life to the full.

Click here to find out about cryogenics – and decide whether or not you would freeze yourself after dying.

* This Death Café’s new home is The Drawing Room Café, 87 Station Road, Observatory.

What you need to know to host your own death café:

See www.deathcafe.com/how/.

  • A venue with refreshments.
  • A host or facilitator who’ll welcome people, ensure rules are observed, and promote discussion.
  • People who want to talk about death.

Did You Know?

Death Café founder Jon Underwood died in June 2017. It was sudden and unexpected, the result of a brain haemorrhage caused by undiagnosed leukaemia. He was 44, and left a spouse and young children. It was a reminder that we will all die; we just don’t know when or how.