Tea, Cake and Death

In September 2016 I wrote about Death Cafes and how I’d like to run one.  Since then I have been holding a 2-monthly Death Cafe in Bristol and I thought I’d like to give some feedback for anyone thinking of holding one where you live.  General advice can be found at the Death Cafe website but here are some extra thoughts from me:

1. First and foremost, it is a real challenge to find the right venue that is accessible to everyone, e.g no stairs.  It needs to serve up tea and cake, be on bus routes, have little or no charge, be available at the time you want it and not be linked to an organisation or institution which might give the wrong impression of the meeting.  (This is why I tend to avoid church halls as I don’t want to give the impression that it is a religious event.) Most commercial cafes are reluctant to set aside a section of their premises when you can’t guarantee a) how many will turn up and b) whether they will spend any money. You will need to bear in mind that having really tried to cover every base, at every meeting someone will tell you how you should have found somewhere better. There will always be someone who doesn’t like the time of day, the day of the week or the cost of the sandwiches.

2. You need to work out how you will publicise the event.  In these modern times this generally means social media.  I create a Facebook event and send out an e-newsletter to a mailing list that has been established over the last few years. If you can attach a poster that is helpful and I send out reminders nearer the time. The advantage of the Facebook event is meant to be that you can see how many are expected and prime your venue to be ready for how many will attend. But (and this is a big BUT) this has proven to be totally unreliable for me.  At least half of them will not turn up and others will wander in announcing they hadn’t said they were coming.  So far these two groups have cancelled each other out so I haven’t been embarrassed at the venue when they have brought in extra staff.  In my opinion it is the down side of not charging people – they are much more relaxed about changing their minds at the last minute because they wont be out of pocket but very frustrating from an administrative point of view. And having spent so much time tracking down the right venue, you really want to keep them happy!

Friends girls

3. Having more than one table is a gamble if you want to be a full participant yourself. Recently I could hear another table getting a bit heated and had to try to monitor it whilst listening to someone speaking at my table.  Luckily it settled down. The bigger the number of tables the more likely you are to have to float a bit to check everyone is okay. I try to avoid becoming an informal chair to my table although participants often look to me for affirmation or information. It is meant to be self-managed with each participant taking an equal responsibility for what is discussed and how much each contributes. Having said that, as hosts we have a responsibility for the event to go well and to ensure that everyone enjoys it.

4. As there will always be someone new in the group I have a bit of preamble that I say at the beginning of each meeting.  It covers the history of Death Cafes (briefly, honest) and lays out a few rules concerning listening respectfully, giving everyone space to contribute and confidentiality (I usually use this point to ask if there are any journalists present). My view of confidentiality is that whilst you hope people will respect what others share, it cannot be guaranteed. I remind participants of this and ask that if they talk about the session outside of the venue they do not say anything that would identify an individual. After all we want people to take these discussion back to their friends and families as part of the movement to make talking about death and dying less of a taboo. I remind people that this is not a bereavement support group although members may talk about grief and loss – if anyone needs information about where to get support I have that information to hand.

5. I try to discourage people from “popping in”. Because of the nature of discussions, it can be hard for everyone if someone arrives late and/or leaves in the middle. There will be occasions when it is unavoidable but if I’m asked in advance I suggest they try to come when they can stay for the whole meeting.

6. I make sure that there are note pads and pencils on each table so people can make notes if they want.  I think it helps them to allow a discussion to flow, knowing they can come back to an earlier point if they want to.


7. Having done the introductory comments I explain that we will have a minute’s silence to help us come “into the room”; to leave outside some of our other issues such as work, parking, babysitters.  I have a small bell that I ring when this is finished and they will have been asked that on hearing this they can start their discussion with introducing themselves and saying what brought them to Death Cafe. At the end I have a short plenary in case anyone has any thoughts they’d like to share with the other tables before another minute’s silence to prepare to go back to their often busy lives. I think this nicely bookends the meeting.

8. From time to time I get requests to attend from people who have another agenda, e.g. students doing research, journalists, GP training. As the group is open to everyone and we do want to get the word out as much as possible my response tends to be that they can come but they have to do so as participants: it is not appropriate to just sit back and “study” the group. So far, they have either chosen not to come or have come, taken part and loved it.

There are so many different themes and characters at each meeting that I love running Death Cafe. I would urge anyone to have a go if they fancy it. What’s the worst that could happen? No-one turns up and you have to eat all the cake yourself!