In May 2021, after nearly three years of work, Dr Naomi Richards and I finally saw our article Death Café, Bauman and Striving for Human Connection in “Liquid Times”published in the journal Mortality. In the article, we offer a new, critical, and perhaps provocative perspective on the role that Death Café gatherings play and the purpose they might serve in contemporary societies. We analyse this through the work of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, specifically his notion of ‘liquid modernity’ and theory of mortality in relation to culture.
The End of Life Studies Group has a longstanding engagement with Death Cafés, and in 2018 we conducted the first ever academic study to investigate the international spread of the ever-growing initiative. Indeed, when I began my employment in Dumfries, Scotland in May 2018, it was on this particular project that I was scheduled to work (although as anyone fortunate enough to have been part of this environment well knows; one thing tends to lead to another, and one project quickly turns into four!). This study therefore holds special importance to me.
Death Café was founded by the late Jon Underwood in London, UK in 2011. Death Cafés are set up as informal café-gatherings featuring ‘tea and cake’ and where the attendees, who are often strangers to one another, come together to talk about death. The Death Café format quickly gained popularity, spreading first throughout the UK and then the USA, and later across the world. Death Café is part of a broader movement of Death Positivity, operating on the assumption that death is a taboo subject and encouraging the public to engage with and talk openly about death and dying. Such openness, it is believed, will have far reaching benefits; from reduced healthcare expenditure and ensuring better end of life care, to de-professionalising the funeral industry, and simply living a more fulfilled life. To wit, the objective of Death Café is to “increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives”.
In our study, where we interviewed 49 Death Café organisers from across the world, most of them expressed views aligning with those previously outlined; emphasising the necessity and benefits of talking about death which they perceived to be a taboo topic. Yet, throughout the conversations and during the subsequent data analysis, I was struck by how much of what was communicated seemed to have more to do with connection and community, than it did with death and dying. I wondered, therefore, whether it was in fact the need to talk about death which was at the heart of the attraction to Death Café, or whether it was instead something else.
Indeed, much of the reported benefits of holding and attending cafés, of the organisation of the events themselves, and the takeaway from them, seemed to revolve around conversation in itself, and a search for authenticity and genuine connections with others. A recurring sentiment throughout our interviews was a disenchantment with contemporary ways of life that were perceived as fast-paced, shallow, and perhaps most of all, lonely, and where people long for but struggle to find a sense of community. Hosting and attending Death Cafés then counteracted this experience, by providing ‘genuine connections’, a sense of togetherness, and promoting profound encounters which would not easily occur elsewhere.
In fact, this was even expressed to occur more readily in Death Café where attendees were strangers to one another. Most organisers put much thought into the set-up of their gatherings, consciously intending to facilitate a specific atmosphere which they perceived as conducive to sharing and closeness. That the topic of conversation be death was important because the (assumed) death taboo meant they were engaging in something transgressive. This works to enhance group unity and promote intimacy.
It is not possible to iterate our full argument here, and what we suggest might seem, on the surface at least, counter-intuitive. Rather than Death Cafés functioning as spaces which allow for talk about death to take place, our data indicated that it was talk about death which allowed for spaces of communion to occur. Furthermore, we argue, these are spaces befitting a specific ‘liquid modern’ audience that seeks community precisely through sharing intimacies and who is accustomed to ideals of self-improvement and development, whereby the solutions to life’s problems are sought looking inward, rather than seeking systemic change.
I suspect our argument might be hard to swallow for some. Importantly, this does not detract from or denigrate the benefits experienced by individuals hosting or attending Death Cafés. Rather, our analysis is sociological, placing the impetuous to engage in death talk and specifically the Death Café initiative in a wider societal context and engaging critically with it. This, in turn, might aid us both to understand and possibly to critique elements of our own societies. Indeed, I am partial to Bauman’s admittedly rather bleak theories because I believe they touch on something fundamental regarding what it means to be an individual today.
Our article was a long time in the making. My employment with the End of Life Studies Group ended in February 2020 with the conclusion of Professor Clark’s Wellcome Trust funded study. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my departure and return to my native Norway came to coincide with the end of the world as we knew it. Continuing to work on our research digitally has provided a sense of continuity in the face of irremediable rupture. Meanwhile, Death Café continues to grow. Indeed, as PhD student Solveiga Zibaite has documented, the initiative has thrived online during the pandemic. According to many, there is an increased desire to talk about death due to these frightening times. Unquestionably, the very real threat of death posed by Covid-19 has forced many of us to reckon with mortality. Yet, in ending, I once more want to suggest we take a cue from Bauman. Might this reflect not simply a desire to talk about death, but again, something else? I would argue that the pandemic and consequent lockdowns, restrictions, and longwinded uncertainties, may give rise to a desire for spaces that provide comfort, meaning, and not least a sense of connection and togetherness to assuage our fears, uncertainties, loneliness, and loss of bearings.
My continued gratitude to Professor David Clark for the opportunity to do this engaging work, to Dr Naomi Richards for the fruitful collaboration, and to the Death Café organisers across the world, who generously donated their time, often in defiance of poor internet connections (on one or both ends), the occasional failing camera, differing time-zones and language barriers, to share something they believe in.