Column: Tea, Cake, and Death – the Value of the Death Cafe

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Who would have thought that life’s most profound experiences come with tea and cupcakes?

Vanitas, by Phillippe de Champaigne. Life, Death, and Time. [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Vanitas, by Phillippe de Champaigne. Life, Death, and Time. [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Death, the final mystery, is an almost unavoidable topic in any religious practice. Of course, regardless of one’s religious beliefs, death remains unavoidable. Under the Pagan umbrella, many traditions treat death as a sacred event, a “crossing over” to a new world and often the fist step toward rebirth. Traditions that follow the Wheel of the Year annually celebrate the dead and the sacredness of death in October. Samhain is often the most popular sabbat of the year in Wiccan and Witchcraft communities, so –- in theory — Pagans should be the citizens who are most in tune with the natural cycle of life, which inevitably includes life’s ending.

And yet, those who practice a form of Paganism remain encompassed by mainstream culture, a culture which is often rather squeamish about the topic of death. We live in a culture that sanitizes death and separates us from it as much as possible. We don’t even like to think about it. A Gallup poll from May, 2016 show that only 44% of Americans have written a will, a number that is down from 51% in 2005. Understandably, more older Americans have wills, yet even in the over-65 category, 22% of respondents still did not possess a will. claims even lower numbers, stating that only 28% of Americans have written a will. If we accept that how well we plan for our inevitable death is a measure of how much we like to discuss it, our culture demonstrates a strong desire to avoid the topic altogether. Despite the importance of the topic for the health and happiness of loved ones as that finances and property be clearly distributed, a majority of Americans choose to look the other way. Ask a typical person to engage in a discussion about death, and you are likely to get a quick response and an even quicker excuse to leave the conversation.

Estate planning and property disbursement are not the only reasons it is important to talk about death. A 2012 article in Science News presents a study that shows that people who think about death can live a better life. “An awareness of mortality,” says the article, “can improve physical health and help us re-prioritize our goals and values” to help us live a happier life. Talking about death is important for life, yet it is a painfully difficult subject to bring up into any casual conversation.

That is the purpose of the death café. Popularized by Jon Underwood, the Death Café is an opportunity to come together in a comfortable environment, enjoy a little tea and cake, and discuss onee of life’s most mysterious and fearful topics. “Our objective,” says Underwood, “is to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” The model includes “no agenda, objectives, or themes.” It is conceived of as “a discussion group rather than a grief support or counseling session.”

Photo credit: Jon Underwood

[Image credit: Jon Underwood]

The first Death Café was held in a basement in East London in 2011, and since then the movement has blossomed. reports that, to date, 3,496 Death cafés have been offered around the world. Underwood states that “We’ve established both there are people who are keen to talk about death and that many are passionate enough to organize their own Death Café.”

Elsa Elliott and Danielle Dionne, the lead and deputy Scorpio Ministers for the Temple of Witchcraft, have been facilitating death cafés in the New England area since February. They emphasize that “Death Café fosters an environment where people can speak openly about death. The idea,” they say, “is to allow people to come together and talk openly about their feelings, ideas, and experiences in an open, confidential forum.”

“We sit together as mortal people who will die,” says Elliott, with no religious agenda, “respectfully accepting whatever the other people believe.” The hosts prioritize “holding space where everyone has a chance to speak and be heard.” This is especially important, they say, “since death has been separated from day-to-day experience and relegated to hospitals and other institutions over the past 100 years.”

The event begins as participants gather together in a circle.­­­ Elliott and Dionne explain their simple guidelines for discussion:

  • This is not an end-of-life planning even, bereavement, or grief counseling.
  • Listen to each other.
  • Take off your “fix-it hat.”
  • Share the air space – let everyone speak.
  • Speak from your personal experience. Try to leave your professional side out of the room.
  • Take care of yourselves – step away if you need to.
  • Get some refreshments. Have some tea and cake.
  • Respect the sanctity and confidentiality of our discussions.

To ensure that everyone can speak and not be talked over, the facilitators use talking stick in the form of a plush, stuffed Cerberus toy, as a marker of whose turn it is to speak. This representation of the fearsome three-headed hound of the underworld is soft and whimsical, which Elliott and Dionne say helps comfort participants who are feeling nervous about the discussion. Ultimately, they say, “We provide a warm, accepting environment so that people can talk about death.”

Cerberus [Photo credit: Elsa Elliott]

Cerberus [Photo credit: Elsa Elliott]

With the ground rules in place, the discussion begins. Naturally, some participants can be shy about getting such difficult conversation rolling, but many are eager to get right into the deep philosophy of death. I attended one death café in which a participant began the session by challenging us on “how we know” our beliefs about the afterlife are true. A fascinating philosophical conversation followed. This was at a Pagan event, so all attendees were either part of the community or friendly to it, yet each held a different set of beliefs about life after death, the soul, and exactly what death means. We explored these profound topics as co-religionists seeking clarification, which allowed us to refine our beliefs after they were exposed to new, inspiring ideas.

Then, an entirely different but equally challenging question arose. While the group questioned their thoughts on the afterlife, many expressing fear, a young woman who was raised Pagan declared that this was the very first time she had heard that people are concerned about these topics. Since she was not a migrant from mainstream faith, she had no experience in the often-terrifying dogmas and doctrines that other religions dictate to their followers. She was surprised. These clashing views from two types of Pagans: those born into Paganism and those who chose to come to it, provided even more fodder for deep, meaningful discussion. It was a thoughtful, respectful, and challenging two hours that helped us all deepen our understandings.

In other cases, participants are slow to get the conversation moving. For these times, Elliott and Dionne have some ice breakers meant to stimulate the participants and lubricate the discussion. They include questions such as:

  • What should someone not say to someone who is grieving?
  • What life experiences influenced your perspective on death?
  • What are some ways death influences your daily life?
  • Before I die, I want to….
  • Imagine yourself on your deathbed. What would you feel proud of? What would you regret?

At some point, the group breaks for cake. After a restful, grounding break, participants return to the conversation. With about 15 minutes left, Elliott and Dionne ask for final thoughts, especially from those who have not yet spoken. After everyone has had their say, usually about two hours after the start of the café, they close by sharing tea and cakes together.

Elliott and Dionne have experienced some moving discussions in their time facilitating death cafés. One session, said Elliott, “Included a conversation about suicide that prompted some to share their experiences with the death of loved ones from suicide.” Other discussions are marked by participants expressing frustration about not knowing the wishes of their deceased parents, a problem that results in family struggles and needless acrimony surrounding the parent’s final decisions. These conversations naturally lead to “stories about how to talk with parents while they are still alive about what they want for end of life care, as well as funeral and other arrangements.” In this small way, one small evening has the ability to improve the life of anyone with elderly parents.

In other situations, says Elliott, participants have discussed “DIY funerals” and “what you want to have happen to your body.” They talk about funeral options as far apart as “mushroom burial suits to transporting bodies in your station wagon.” Elliott emphasizes that these discussions, “prompt reflection on how we want to die, how we plan to communicate our wishes to loved ones, and how we provide care for our dead.”

“It’s been really cool witnessing and hearing people share their views and process,” exclaimed Elliott. Discussions stimulate thought, which can inspire action. The important decisions of life include those about how to handle our death, and burying our heads in the sand over the topic will only serve to harm our loved ones in the long run. Death cafés thaw the ice on extremely important matters and can ultimately lead to a better life, and death, for everyone.

The death café movement describes itself as a “social franchise.” As such, they state that anyone who can “sign up to our guide and principles can use the name ‘Death Café,’ post events to [their] website, and talk to the press as an affiliate of Death Café.” Given their impressive growth numbers since 2011, people all over the world, from all religious and non-religious backgrounds are doing just that.

Elliott advises everyone to attend a death café in their own area. “These events,” she says, “promote death positivity and bring death to everyday experience.” As strange as it may sound to talk about “death positivity,” the Pagan world is in a unique position to do so. For evidence, I Look back on the young woman who was raised Pagan and who could not comprehend the fear of death that other café participants were discussing. Without that burden of taboo and fear, we could do more with the time we have been given and provide for the continued happiness of our loved ones at the end of our finite lives.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.