Thursday, 2 February 2012

Death Cafe at #DeathFest

I’m still buzzing from the Southbank Death: Festival for the Living – more affectionately known as DeathFest. The festival consisted of 2 and a bit days of death, death and more death in a high-profile public space with many of the heavy-hitters from the field. It was enlightening, empowering and, more than anything else, fun.

Some of my favourite people were there, such as Charles Cowling of the Good Funeral Guide, who for me is the very voice of death. The wonderful Natural Death Centre were out in force, their energy undimmed by 20 years of righteous campaigning. Quaker Social Action, who do terrific work in East London (my neck of the woods), had a stall where Shaun invited people to step inside a paper coffin. The lovely e-memberance father and son team were there too, live-tweeting the whole event.

According to Susan Morris, the heart and soul of the Natural Death Centre, there has never been an event like DeathFest before. That doesn’t surprise me - nor does the fact that it sold out and was full of energy for the duration. The ‘Death sector’ is very interesting. It feels very young and vibrant despite having been around for a good long while. It also feels like its gathering force, like a wave of change, a tipping point, is coming…

Death Café was perhaps the smallest and youngest organisation represented at the festival. I was nervous – especially when I found out that we were sharing a space with the Natural Death Centre. For me that is putting a mouse next to a lion! We were thrilled to be invited along though, and had our first bit of national press as a result, when Sue was interviewed for the Independent.

A characteristic of the festival was that everything was extremely harmonious between the organisations. In this sector, people are a bit suspicious but when they are convinced that you’re coming from the right place they really open up. I guess that is what working with death does for you.

The Death Café team worked hard to step up for the festival. We offered Death Café to 3 groups of people at time across 3 tables. As well as our core facilitator, Sue Barsky Reid, I roped in the wonderful Kristie West and also facilitated my first Death Cafes. We were ably assisted by Donna, Alistair and Marianne, and by Andriana of the Black Ribbon Blog.

We were only allocated an hour on Saturday and one on Sunday to run our cafes but were still determined to offer food and drink to everyone who came – we take the ‘café’ part of our name quite seriously. Sue makes the cake as well as facilitating the sessions and she went into baking overdrive. 4 types of cake were offered to participants to choose from:

  • Chilli chocolate with lime cream cheese frosting
  • Apricot and marzipan
  • Sticky date
  • Chocolate fudge

We also served a hot cup of ginger, honey and lemon tea, and sometimes 2 cups.

49 people attended the Death Café over the weekend and unfortunately a number left frustrated due to lack of space. The sessions I facilitated were powerful and moving, especially on Saturday. Consistently we see a real hunger to talk about death from those who attend. In some cases it seems to make a huge difference as people get time to say things they’ve rarely or never been able to say before.

The feedback we received was generally pretty good. There was an interesting write up here and a number of people left comments on their namecards:

  • As someone who strongly believes we should talk more about death I found this very powerful. I hope this is the start of something big!
  • Lovely talk!
  • Thank you. I like the openness of the discussion but its good to have a facilitator.
  • Kristie West -> Rockstar! ☺
  • Nice and easy going – enables people to talk frankly. Great idea.
  • Great again! Young and old around the table. Brillaint. We’re spreading the word. Thanks.
  • I enjoyed the discussion very much. I did not really know what to expect. I think you have pitched the event rather well. I like the concept and would take part again.
  • Loved this experience. Very interested in holding a Death Café in the north east.
  • Found it really positive, completely the opposite of what I would have expected. The name ‘Death Café’ sounds very exclusive to people who have suffered with loss, however I left feeling very positive for today.
  • Relaxed, thought provoking, with delicious tea and cake. Thank you.

In summary, we were delighted by our experience at Deathfest and realised again that we really, really love offering Death Cafes. We are full of energy to provide more. As part of this we’ve produced a ‘how to’ guide for people who want to set up their own Death Cafes that will be available on this blog later today.


  1. Well Done Death Cafe! Happy to see such a great turnout :-)

  2. It was an eye opener and we took a lot from our session, it was fantastic to meet you guys in person and we are looking forward to spreading the death cafe word in 2012 :)

  3. oh and BTW i need more of the chocolate cake ;)

  4. What a terrific way to get the conversation going. Not only do we not talk about death enough in our societies, but as we age, we try hard to deny that it will ever happen. When the moment comes we are unprepared, for either the dying or the surviving. Your extraordinary approach will serve many well--allowing the survivors to share their stories and help us all develop a little more realistic view. Congrats!


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