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Destigmatizing death with our first Death Cafe

Separate from a grief or support group, a Death Cafe offers a space to get together and informally discuss death.

The image shows a stream of tea being poured from a white teapot into a white teacup with handles. The tea appears to be a rich amber color. The background is plain white, emphasizing the action of pouring.

Support groups for people who are grieving have become common in the United States, but there are few opportunities these days for people to get together and informally discuss death. We at the Holman Biotech Commons were eager to allow space for this important conversation in our library, and to provide space for fellowship, frank discussion, and learning. Thus, in the fall of 2023, we hosted our first Death Cafe.

The history of Death Cafes

While the inspiration for our Death Cafe came during a presentation from Carrie Forbes, a librarian at East Carolina University, death cafes have quite a history. During Carrie’s presentation, she mentioned that Death Cafes involve “a group of people (often strangers) who get together over a hot beverage and dessert, to have the opportunity to informally talk about death.” She also said that by 2019, there were more than 6,000 death cafe events worldwide. I dug further, and found that the Death Cafe guide explains more:

“Death Cafes are always offered:
• With no intention of leading participants to any conclusion, product, or course of action.
• As an open, respectful, and confidential space where people can express their views safely.
• On a not-for-profit basis.
• Alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food – and cake!
It's also worth stating here what Death Cafes is not:
• Death Cafe is not a bereavement support or grief counselling setting. Death Cafe doesn't work for people who, for whatever reason, aren't able to discuss death comfortably and openly. There are many projects better set up for this.
• Death Cafes aren't an opportunity to give people information about death and dying -­ regardless of how good or important it is. Rather we create time to discuss death without expectations. For this reason, having guest speakers and information materials available is actively discouraged.”

The website now says that over 17,000 death cafes have been held in 88 countries.

What happens in the Death Cafe stays in the Death Cafe

The first step was speaking with someone currently on campus who had taken part in a Death Cafe. We contacted someone from the Perelman School of Medicine who had earlier experience with a Death Cafe, and they shared wonderful insights on hosting the event. Our biggest disclaimer going in was that every event is different. The only way for these meetings to be successful is for all participants to know that what is said in the event stays in the event. We decided to hold the event in the Design Thinking Studio in the back corner of the Holman Biotech Commons. In addition to providing natural light via windows, the room is entered through another space (the Mixed Media Lab), which allowed for refreshments to be in one room and the conversation to take place in the next. Additionally, this set-up meant that if someone needed to step out for a moment or two during a difficult moment, they would be able to do so. While we planned for this possibility, it was not necessary. Chairs were set up in a large circle, with small tables accessible for food and drinks. We also had lamp lighting and even greenery.

We were fortunate to have refreshments provided with funding by the library, and the food was delicious and easy to eat one-handed. The menu consisted of hummus, stuffed grape leaves, marinated olives, and Italian croutes and pita wedges. Sweets were also on hand, including individual cakes. Assorted tea, coffee, and water were also available.

The event was promoted through digital signage and listservs, targeting students, faculty, and staff from the Perelman School of Medicine, Penn Nursing, and Penn Vet.

A flyer features a black header with the title ‘Death Cafe’ in white and orange fonts. Below the header, there are bullet points outlining the goal of the Death Cafe event, which is to provide a judgment-free environment where participants can openly discuss the topic of death without a predetermined agenda or theme. A QR code is also present on the right side for additional information.
The sign used to advertise the Death Cafe.

We asked folks to RSVP so we knew how many to expect. In the end, almost a dozen people attended, which turned out to be about the right size for the room and the conversation. Attendees were a mix of students and staff from the Perelman School of Medicine, Penn Nursing, and other Penn programs.

Flowing Conversation 

One of the more difficult aspects of the event was planning for a discussion that could go in so many different directions. The following topics were discussed after introductions:

What brought you here today?
Differing cultural views of death
The role of rituals
Signs we see from those beyond the grave
What do you call "heaven" in your culture?

The conversation flowed nicely and went right up until the scheduled end time after one hour. As participants were leaving, we asked if they would attend another Death Cafe should we hold one in the future. The consensus was that it was a success, and that we should consider holding more events.

As mentioned earlier, every Death Cafe experience is different, and our framework allowed flexibility for the participants to shape the event to their experience and liking. As this was our first event, we learned a lot. We plan to advertise future events to a broader audience and limit the event size to twelve or fewer participants.

We want to thank all involved, from those who helped plan the event to those who showed up as participants. We hope to be able to continue offering Death Cafes on a regular basis going forward and are excited to continue offering space for these conversations. If you’re interested in finding out more about Death Cafes, see these resources available in the library catalog.