Until Death Café meetings moved from cafes, libraries, community centres, cemeteries, etc. to the online sphere due to social distancing measures, it had not occurred to me to specify that my PhD thesis is about face to face Death Café meetings. Online Death Cafés were an exception, not the rule when I conducted my fieldwork in 2018-2019. I attended 20 Death Café events in the United Kingdom and the embodied co-presence of attendees always seemed to be such an intrinsic part of Death Café conversations and their intimate atmosphere, that removing it from the equation seemed almost impossible. I still hold that belief. But Death Cafés seem to be thriving from a growing interest in the face of the pandemic and they have had to move online. While this is an appropriate development at the moment, the lack of embodied conviviality of a face-to-face meeting, combined with the change in conversation topics, raises a concern that the informative and educational potential of Death Café meetings at this time might be overestimated.
Several Death Café hosts and facilitators have been interviewed for a recent Guardian newspaper article and they point out that the conversations have become much more practical since the outbreak: ‘people are wanting hard facts and information about what dying of Covid-19 is actually like’. While many Death Café hosts tend to have a background in healthcare, social work, counselling, the death-industry etc. and are experiencing pandemic-related changes in their daily work, the increased desire for practical and applicable information may put pressure on the host’s role to be more educational and authoritative than intended in the Death Café ethos. This ethos from the outset has exhibited a strong egalitarian orientation. The official guide on the Death Café website states: ‘In the Death Café there are no hierarchies. We all meet simply as people who are going to die. As such any facilitators who work around death and dying should be willing to leave their professional identity at the door’ (https://deathcafe.com/how/).
The same is usually expected from attendees – they are to talk about their own and their family’s fears, plans, experiences, only bringing in their relevant professional expertise when explicitly asked. In practice, professional knowledge features quite prominently in Death Café conversations and while most of the time it enriches the conversation with tailored advice, it can also be a source of contention. This is especially prevalent when there are significant numbers of healthcare and death-industry professionals attending the Death Café.
Death Cafés, while seemingly stripping attendees of their everyday roles and common pretences and helping people communicate in an ‘authentic’ way, are in actuality complex negotiations of identities. The interplay between these identities might become even more prevalent when in search of practical, specialised information. I recall an instance in a Death Café when one attendee, let’s call them attendee A, detailed her unpleasant interaction with police concerning her father’s death at home. Attendee B happened to be a police officer and explained what must have happened and what procedures were probably followed, but it was met with apprehension and led to a conflict between the lived experience of attendee A and professional expertise of attendee B. Another conflict arose the same evening when discussion about the efficacy of holistic cancer remedies was challenged by a person with a lived experience of cancer who found it disrespectful. The facilitators did not intervene and attendees eventually changed the topic. This ‘gentle’ approach to facilitation might carry larger consequences in the face of suspicion, misinformation and conflicting advice concerning Covid-19.
My research shows that many Death Café hosts and facilitators are already wrangling with defining where their responsibility towards attendees ends. Some note an evolution in their own understanding of their role, from anxiously preparing an information pack if anyone had a practical question, to growing into a confident group conversation facilitator, instead of an information provider. Some take great pride in regularly following up with their attendees and fostering close friendships. Many Death Café hosts defined their goal for organising Death Café meetings as wanting to ‘open up’, or ‘create a space for conversations’, meaning that it is mostly up to the attendees to explore the diversity of their experiences and mutually learn from one another, while the host’s responsibility ends with the last sip of tea. Anthropologist Arnar Arnasson’s research on Cruse bereavement services shows how volunteers, trained to understand grief as simultaneously ordinary and individually unique through situated learning that places them in the prospective clients’ shoes, are inaugurated as ‘experts of the ordinary’ (Arnasson 2001). Seemingly, Death Café hosts should play the same role by facilitating conversations about a natural phenomenon of death, providing an opportunity to talk, opening up space, ensuring the democratic spirit of the meeting. However, this is an extraordinary situation and the newly growing interest in Death Cafés is likely to create new challenges in negotiating group dynamics.
We need to be careful not to overestimate the level and specificity of support or answers that an online Death Café can provide at this time. People from opposite ends of the world might join the same meeting online and while this does have benefits such as exposure to diversity and building solidarity in the face of a global crisis, if there is an increase in desire for practical discussion and advice, country or region-specific knowledge and resources might go unaddressed. Keeping the events country based might be beneficial to remedy that. While Death Cafés are great resources for local communities, combating loneliness, providing opportunities to socialise and discuss how important it is to talk about death, I encourage Death Café hosts to be specific about what they are offering when creating these online meeting spaces.
Arnason, A. (2001). Experts of the Ordinary: Bereavement Counselling in Britain. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 7(2), 299–313. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/2661224
Brookes, Libby (2020 April 13). Death cafes report surge of interest since Covid-19 outbreak. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/13/death-cafes-see-surge-of-interest-in-online-events