Death Cafés

What are Death Cafés and what can they tell us about nonreligion?

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Since 2011, more than 15,000 Death Cafés have been hosted in over 80 countries. These “pop-up” events aim to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” Although death has traditionally been processed and understood in relation to religious communities or identities, Death Cafés are a nonreligious and non-institutional alternative community to which people turn to understand and cope with death. Participants are able to have frank discussions about their own mortality and what happens after death, as well as the challenges of caring for loved ones and navigating the practicalities of death. 

Through these events, this project explores the attitudes, practices, and concerns around death and dying of both religious and nonreligious participants. The project will help us to gain a deeper understanding of not just how nonreligion is reshaping conceptualizations of death, but further knowledge of concerns, needs, and forms of care that matter to nonreligious people. 

How does the research work?

We recruited participants with support from Death Café facilitators across Canada. Thus far, we have held nine focus groups with 49 total participants from Canada and the United States, as well as 31 follow-up interviews with focus group participants. 

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What are we finding so far?

1. Death Avoidance

When asked why they attend Death Cafés, most participants express that we live in a “death averse” or “death denying” society. Participants suggest one way to change this outlook is simply talking about death. Some mentioned that they used to have a personal fear of death, and got involved as a way to remedy this. Other participants aim to have a larger impact on the world, and see themselves as destigmatizing a cultural taboo. At times this can create an “us versus them’ mentality – separating those who are afraid to talk about death from those who assert: “talking about death won’t kill you.” In general though, participants believe that attending Death Cafés gives them the confidence and tools to discuss the topic with family and friends who would otherwise be too uncomfortable to talk about death.

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2. Real Conversations 

Several people describe what happens in Death Cafés as “real conversations.” Compared to small talk in everyday life, participants see Death Cafés as fostering deeper conversations with “no BS.” Some added that this depth of conversation helps to create strong bonds between attendees. People share such intimate details as their experiences of grief or fears about dying. Even though they may only see each other 2 hours every month, participants described these groups as a community or family.

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3. Ideas about the Afterlife

Since the topic often comes up at Death Cafés, we asked participants what they think happens when we die. Our participants represented a range of religious backgrounds, including Christians, Buddhists, Jews, atheists, agnostics, and many people who describe themselves simply as “spiritual.” Given this diverse background, we were surprised at the overall convergence of ideas concerning what happens after death. An idea shared by many involved the concept of energy. In some cases, participants spoke with certainty about specific possibilities, like humans continuing as energy in other planes of existence. In other cases, ideas were more vague; some “hoped” there was something after death, and imagined that energy was the most likely form of continuation. Likewise, energy was sometimes situated within religious reference points, while others couched energy within a more scientific framing, referencing quantum physics or satellite pictures from NASA. Overall, participants shared an immanent understanding of death. Most indicated that whatever happens after death likely occurs through natural forces rather than intervention from a higher, external power.

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4. Reimagining Death Rituals

Another common topic at Death Cafés is how we commemorate death. Participants generally conveyed their aversion to traditional rituals. Funerals held in either a funeral home or a church were seen as stale and outdated. Instead, participants desired rituals that were more personally meaningful. Many suggested that they wanted their funeral to feel more like a party or celebration. Several had even begun creating playlists of music for the event.

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In terms of what to do with the body, standard burial in a cemetery was similarly seen as outdated. Even cremation was considered undesirable by many due to the environmental impact of this process. Participants were especially keen on new alternatives, such as aquamation, terramation (sometimes called human composting), or natural burial. These newer methods being environmentally friendly was one appeal. Recalling the belief that we continue as energy, many also felt these alternatives put you more “in touch” with nature, even after death.  Overall though, many weren’t quite sure exactly which option they would pursue – at least not yet. Indeed, some shared that they go to Death Cafés partly to get new ideas about what possibilities are out there. This speaks to the bigger role that Death Cafés play in shaping new understandings of death and dying.

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What are the project’s next steps?

We are in the process of extending our research to Quebec and to other NCF countries. Death Cafés are a global phenomenon: they are found in over 80 countries, with particularly active groups in the US, Britain, and Australia. This means that we will have a unique opportunity for comparative analysis. 

Who is involved?

Results and Publications

Results from the Death Café project are discussed in Chris Miller and Lori G. Beaman’s article, “Nonreligious Afterlife: Emerging Understandings of Death and Dying,” Religions (2024).

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