NOTHING is certain in life, so they say, except death and taxes.
But while most of us are happy to vent opinion on the latter, the subject of mortality remains taboo – too depressing to think about, too morbid to discuss, and definitely not something to chat about over tea and cake.
But that is exactly what people are doing in ‘Death Cafes’ taking place across the county this year.
Aimed at lifting taboos about death, people gather at cafes and bookshops to talk frankly and sensitively about experiences and concerns regarding dying and bereavement.
The meetings are free, aimed at people of all ages and backgrounds and can include discussions on wills and funeral wishes, assisted dying, bereavement counselling and palliative care.
The Oxfordshire charity Befriending for Life (OxBEL), which works with people with life-limiting illnesses, is currently hosting Death Cafes in Eynsham, Oxford, Abingdon, Chipping Norton, Faringdon, Banbury and Thame, after its previous year’s success with the format.
Joan Gardner, OxBEL Coordinator North & West, said the event’s popularity was exceeding expectations.
“Since 2013, we have had hundreds of conversations with individuals and groups about what can be a very difficult, frightening subject.”
She continued: “Society doesn’t really allow people to talk about this taboo subject. So this is what a Death Cafe does: it offers us all a rare opportunity to think about and share our feelings and experiences of death and dying.
“But we don’t hold the view that everyone should talk about death. There may be people for whom it is not helpful.
“And while those who are dying or in the midst of bereavement are welcome, there is no therapeutic element to a Death Cafe .”
Laura Freeth, one of OxBEL’s Death Cafe facilitators, said while the name Death Cafe may seem ‘dark’, events are anything but.
“There is often laughter and we heard many uplifting anecdotes and stories,” she said.
“They have no religious or spiritual agenda and attract people of all ages, including a lot of people in their late 40s and 50s who want to broach the subject sensitively with their children.
“And we have also been very encouraged that people who attended last year have already signed up to attend this year.”
Death Cafes took place last month in Eynsham and Banbury and Gillian Fox, 63, and from Witney, attended both after hearing about them from a friend.
Mrs Fox lost her husband Geoff to a brain tumour in 1997, when he was just 50.
She said: “After the shock and grief I had to learn a lot and survive and thankfully I came out fighting.
“I later wrote a book about my experiences and trained as a bereavement coach, and my business, Moving Beyond Bereavement, now helps people to see that they can rebuild their lives after losing a loved one.”
Gillian with her late husband Geoff Fox
She continued: “My husband and I had a business so we had wills and everything practical was arranged in case of our deaths. But it wasn’t until after he died that I realised we had never talked about our personal wishes – what kind of funeral he wanted, what hymns even, and I wish we had.
“I went to the Death Cafes and I did not know what to expect, but I was surprised and found the whole experience quite uplifting.
“Of course some people had very sad stories and there were tears. But there was also laughter and I think most of us, myself included, came away having learned things.”
She added: “Death still is very much the ‘elephant in the room’. But it is a conversation that society needs to be having.”
OxBEL volunteer Trevor Evans, 54, from Oxford, has led two Oxford City Death Cafes.
The father-of-two said: “The Death Cafes were a bit of an unknown to start with. We were unsure how people would respond.
“But we were delighted by people’s feedback from them.
“Both Oxford events were held at the Barefoot Bookshop in Summertown and the first one attracted around 30 people aged from their 20s up to their 80s.
“I was one of five support staff and started things off by talking about my role in befriending people and soon conversation started and flowed naturally.
“Rather than the practicalities in dealing for death, like making wills and such, the groups I took wanted mostly to talk about death and dying. We all know that death is sad but people had strong feelings and experiences about what can make a death easier.
“People talked about sharing information on last wishes and, of course, had fears and things they wanted to share and talk about including grief.
“Some told how friends had avoided them because they didn’t know how to express sympathy and that comes from the fact that death is a taboo.
“Our aim is to create a vehicle people can use to talk freely about a very important subject.”
Death Cafes were pioneered by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who began hosting pop-up ‘cafes mortels’ in Switzerland in 2004.
They were introduced to the UK by Jon Underwood, the founder of the not-for-profit death and bereavement social enterprise Impermanence.
He hosted the first at his home in Hackney, East London, in 2011.
Since then, more than 100 people have used the Death Cafe website (deathcafe.com) to host more than 600 Death Cafes for more than 3,000 participants across Europe, North America and Australasia.
Other UK locations have included London, Bristol, Manchester and Sheffield.
A ROCK AND ROLL APPROACH TO POPPING YOUR CLOGS
Liz Rothschild founded Oxfordshire’s Kicking the Bucket Festival, which holds colourful and joyful events, workshops and debates around the theme of death and dying.
Liz said: “The first Death Cafe I attended was in London. It was led by Josefine Speyer who set up the Natural Death Centre and it was in her house. I was very surprised by how quickly people shared very deeply and also amazed at how much we laughed. I then ran one in Swindon. And at the last Kicking the Bucket Festival we held one.
“During this year’s festival in October, there will be five happening around the county.
“I think the value of them is that it normalises talking about death.
“I think people still feel that if they talk about death they bring it uncomfortably close, but in fact the experience of most people is that it only brings relief and a feeling of lightness. Otherwise, they carry around a lot of unanswered questions and can feel very lonely with it.
“We are not alone with it once we start talking to other people. In fact it is the one thing we all have in common as human beings.
“And this was one of the most powerful things to emerge from the feedback on the last Kicking the Bucket festival.
“We hope people will join us for a wonderful line up of events for the Festival in 2014 including a school conference, a range of events focused on people with dementia, a new puppet show for younger children at Barefoot Books and a family day at Ark T.
Jackie Singer, of the folk group Kismet, left, and organiser Liz Rothschild lead a procession along Cornmarket Street for the Kicking the Bucket Festival in 2012
“Not to mention our New Orleans Funeral Jazz Band launch, ending at the Beatnik bookshop in Jericho for an evening of music and poetry and much, much more. “
- The next Death Cafe is on Saturday, May 17, from 10am–noon, at St Edmund House, 39 West St Helen Street, Abingdon. Telephone 01235 849427 to book.
- For details of further events visit oxbel.org.uk