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.
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.
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.
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.
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.