Politics, religion, money, sex, death. What do all of these have in common? Besides a typical episode of Law and Order, they’re all taboo conversation topics likely to start drama (or a bar brawl) at the dinner table.
The problem with controversial topics is, yes, duh, they’re controversial, but they’re also important to talk about with someone, maybe anyone. Death in particular is given a wide birth: it can be sad, emotional, and downright terrifying. A British survey by the charity Dying Matters reveals that more than 70% of the population is uncomfortable talking about death, and less than a third have spoken to family members about end-of-life wishes. One attempt at bringing the topic above ground is the relatively new concept of the Death Café. (See? Overcoming taboo topics already with a death joke/pun!)
The idea began in 2004, when sociologist Bernard Crettaz began hosting pop-up “cafes mortels” in Switzerland. They gained popularity and quickly spread to France, Belgium, and the UK, eventually catching on in North America thanks to Jon Underwood, the founder of deathcafe.com.
So what is it, exactly? Contrary to the image that might have popped into your head, Death Cafés are not darkly-lit coffee shops full of black-clad people in deep mourning; it’s more of a concept than a Google Maps destination. Death Cafés are clubs of sorts. They’re a group of people that gather to discuss anything and everything around death and dying. They are a way to bring awareness to the subject and make the most out of the finite present, while providing a safe space for people to raise questions and explore mortality. Perhaps most importantly, they bring the subject of dying out of the shadows to help ease fear and avoidance of the topic.
These discussions are often between strangers and are usually facilitated by someone affiliated with counseling, though the only prerequisite for leading a Death Café is passion around the conversation. They often take place in cafés or other public locales, though they can be hosted in homes as well. Actually, there is just one more prerequisite—tea and cake (or yummy things of some kind) must be served!
While they’re open to anyone and everyone, the generational pendulum swings towards one group in particular: Baby Boomers. This cohort is experiencing a time of great transition—entering retirement or thinking about encore careers, perhaps doing some legacy planning of their own or for their elderly parents. They might be saying goodbye to loved ones or dealing with the loss of a friend. As they navigate these trying times, tough questions can and will come up. Group support via Death Cafés can offer a needed outlet for difficult personal questions and help them come to terms with the subject itself. Boomers have always been a generation that bucks tradition, and they’re not going gently into that good night without first asking some questions about what it all means. Grief, dying, mortality, the afterlife—it all gets thrust into the light, no longer a hush-hush topic to be discussed behind closed doors. Out in the open, the fear this topic inspires becomes diminished, and Café attendees help each other cope. They find solace in a collective that encourages exploring the greatest unknown humankind will ever face—death.
Talking about taboo subjects is taboo in and of itself, but doing so brings about much needed insight. Check out deathcafe.com for information about hosting or attending a Café and put this taboo topic in its final resting place.