What I learned when I attended a Croydon death café

By - Tuesday 19th June, 2018

Advertised as offering ‘healthy and insightful conversations’, what happens when we meet to talk about death?

Photo by Liz Sheppard-Jones, used with permission.

I’m new to Croydon. One of the ways to get to know a neighbourhood is to meet with people in public and chat. We might talk about our children, our occupation, hobbies and education. We might even share our troubles, and how we ended up in this place.

But I’m surprised when my friend, who is a local here, asks me to go to a death café held on the third Wednesday of each month in Café Costa, Thornton Heath. People come to a café and share their thoughts and experiences about death for an hour or so. He also says that I don’t need to talk – I can just listen.

Croydon death café events are part of an initiative called Creating Conversations in Croydon, a community collaborative project led by St Christopher’s Hospice. The project has forty specially trained volunteers who are committed to encouraging people to think, talk and plan for their end of life wishes.

Death cafés have spread quickly across Europe, north America and Australasia

I am a little nervous. Personally I am not unfamiliar with talking about issues of death, but as a stranger to this neighbourhood as well as this country it is a step forward to talk about such a serious issue as death. There are eleven of us gathered around the biggest table at Costa, one of the chain cafés friendly enough to let us meet at their closing time. Some know others to an extent, some are complete strangers. Having our cakes and coffees in front of us unites us in the old human tradition of gathering around a table with food and drink. There are a few people who have visited before; there are also first timers. Our facilitator, Chrys, outlines the reasons we are here.

The death café model was developed by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid, based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz and Café Mortel. In 2010, inspired by Bernard’s work, Jon Underwood decided to use similar model for his own project, and the death café was born. Death cafés have spread quickly across Europe, North America and Australasia. As of today, they have offered over 6,000 death cafés in fifty-six countries since 2011. It means that more than 60,000 participants have gathered and talked about death. If you find the idea interesting enough to try, you can join one of the nearest gatherings and if you find it more appealing, you may even organise your own death café.

If we could embrace death, we would be more able to celebrate life

Existentialists insist that for each of us, finding out that we are mortal changes how we feel for good. We try to live our lives under the shadow of death. Most of us adopt forgetting as a coping mechanism.

Psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Yalom says that “though death cannot be avoided, confronting the fact that you will die has rewards, namely that people who are able to do it tend to become calmer, more centred and aware and more able to ignore distractions and anxieties and focus on what is truly important (e.g., loving relationships). Confronting death makes life more poignant and meaningful in essence. You appreciate life more if you treat each day as your last”.

This is how I make sense of the death café. If only we could embrace death, and the death of people that we love, we will be able to celebrate life and the living with those loved ones.

Gokcen Odabas

Gokcen Odabas

Gökçen Odabaş is a curious person who loves to indulge herself in different areas from working as a doctor and a forensic physician in a very busy practice to being a business coach, assessor and editor. All her work has something in common: to notice and support dysfunctions. Her subject areas change but but her all-time love is words. Although she worked as an editor in her mother tongue Turkish, she is new to English writing, much as she is new to Croydon. She joins every possible activity around this neighbourhood as a voluntary anthropologist, to feel the borough in a relatively short time.

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