Last orders at the Death Café

An attempt to break the taboo on mortality with the aid of coffee and biscuits

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

The coffee and walnut cake was excellent. As was the chocolate cake, and the tea and biscuits. The conversation was wonderful too. We talked about death.

We were here, we dozen or so people in a meeting room in a small Suffolk market town on a sunny June evening, to do something British people never do: hold a conversation about the fact that we will all, in the end, die. Weather, football, the state of Kerry Katona’s finances — all these are acceptable topics for discourse. Death, on the other hand: not likely. There must be a subconscious fascination with the subject: otherwise why would Midsomer Murders get so many viewers? Yet no one discusses it openly. A new movement called Death Café has been established to challenge this. Starting in Switzerland, where the gatherings were called ‘café mortels’, the idea has now spread to France, Britain, the US, Canada and elsewhere. Anyone can hold a meeting. You just need a room, some cake and a bit of frankness.

It could sound like the sort of thing indulged in by American teenagers in black T-shirts getting all Kurt Cobain on each other. But the group I attended was resolutely un-grungy. Most of us were on the back nine of life, no one was weird, we all just wanted to talk. Even the woman in her fifties who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness spoke calmly and rationally, and while of course we all expressed our sympathy, there were no great displays of emotion. She discussed the practicalities, such as deciding who will get which piece of jewellery, as well as telling her husband she wants him to enjoy life after she’s dead: ‘Don’t feel guilty about finding someone else.’

Some people attended because their jobs have brought them into contact with death. A solicitor said that even the law finds it difficult to broach the topic; there is no legal ownership, for instance, of a dead body. This can lead to real problems in the case of second marriages. Michael Hutchence’s ashes had to be split into thirds when his divorced parents and partner Paula Yates failed to agree on what should happen to them.

A nurse bemoaned the medical profession’s unwillingness to use the D word. When Gordon Brown’s daughter Jennifer lay dying in hospital, none of the doctors would say out loud what Brown himself could see. Only when he voiced the conclusion did they confirm it. Those five simple letters are still a taboo. Writing a condolence card recently, I found myself unable to break it, bottling out of ‘death’ and opting for ‘passing’ instead. The nurse replied that she always uses the simpler word in cards: ‘You owe it to people to be honest.’

Several friends of the terminally ill woman have asked whether she would have preferred a sudden death to the one she now faces. ‘And I’ve realised no, I definitely wouldn’t. It took my diagnosis to stop me taking life for granted. If I’d just been hit by a bus I wouldn’t have had that. You appreciate everything. Even rain — it means you’re alive.’ Another advantage of the situation was mentioned by Iain Banks before his recent death. The outpouring of emotion at the news of his cancer meant ‘I’m getting all this love and admiration now, rather than people standing around talking about me awfully well when I’m dead.’

We spoke about other considerations: planning your funeral, for instance. Liz Taylor played a final joke on her friends, telling them to arrive for 2 p.m. but the service itself not starting for another 15 minutes because ‘she even wanted to be late for her own funeral’.

What really fascinates me, though, is the philosophical underpinning to all this, the view of life you gain when you’re willing to talk about death. Because behind society’s reluctance to do so I always hear the sound of a bell: the one that tolls for thee.

Deep down we’re troubled by condolence cards not because of social awkwardness, but because every death is a reminder that one day it will be our turn. Hard-wired into us is a difficulty with accepting our own mortality. Life is one long struggle to accept that life will end. Superficially we’re all logic and reason — no one seriously thinks they’re immortal. But our subconscious is fighting. The surface ripples can take several forms. Some people go for plastic surgery. With me it’s hotel rooms: every time I leave one for the final time a small wave of sadness washes over me. Nothing to do with the room itself: it can have been the grottiest, most uncomfortable hotel in the world. Rather it’s that a ‘last’ is announcing itself. Not many do. But leaving a hotel room, you know that you will never return to it. Your journey, your life, is continuing, and it only ever goes in one direction. Charlie Watts draws every hotel room he stays in. He has done for years, though he never looks at the results. ‘It’s more a record,’ he says, ‘to know I’ve got it. I’ll look at them all one day.’ Immortality, Charlie, that’s what I reckon it is. If you’ve got the pictures, you’ve got the rooms. You’ve got a shot at avoiding the final check-out.

At our Death Café we also discussed the experience commonly cited as the worst a human can have: your child dying before you do. The terminally ill woman’s mother is still alive, and it struck us that, with increasing life expectancies, more and more parents will be around to witness the deaths of their 50- and even 60-something children. A return to the parental grief of past centuries, when infant mortality rates were high, just further along the age scale. Again, however, I couldn’t help wondering at the tensions beneath the surface. Yes, the phrase ‘burying your child’ is truly chilling. Yet think about the biological imperative behind that chill — the all-conquering desire of your genes to preserve themselves — and you’re reminded that in the long-term ‘you’ don’t matter at all: you’re just a vehicle for those genes.

So, in the even longer term, is your child. But your child will get to see that longer term. You won’t. Is that a subliminal strain between the generations? Of course you can never prove any of this (which is why it’s so fascinating to discuss), but my gut instinct is that the strain certainly is there, and that it explains a lot of problems, especially between fathers and sons.

Getting on for 200 Death Café meetings have now been held around the world. You can find a list of future ones at deathcafe.com – or you can start your own. Surely not talking about death is like being on a train and never mentioning the destination to your fellow passengers? More cake, -anyone?

Mark Mason, is the author of Walk the Lines: the Underground, Overground

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Show comments
  • Great article about an interesting concept. I definitely have that same feeling about hotel rooms. I’ll check out five minutes before the deadline, looking around one last time, the whole thing, even though I travel a lot.

    I’m not sure there’s much intergenerational tension to happen. I don’t look back at the time before I was born and wish I could have lived there. Similarly, I don’t look forward to 2200 wishing I could live there. (Playing it safe with the year I pick to make sure I don’t end up living in it someday.) Maybe my view’ll change as I get older, not sure.