How 'Death Cafes' Are Surviving the Pandemic

The places were created as a way to talk about mortality. But with death occupying everyone's thoughts, are they still relevant?
October 28, 2020, 9:37am
Death cafes
This photo taken on April 5, 2018, shows a skeleton in front of the Kid Mai Death Awareness Cafe, an exhibition built to educate the public about death and Buddhism, in Bangkok. Photo: LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA / AFP

When India went into lockdown, the owners of Talking Death, a forum in Mumbai where customers could sip tea, eat cakes and dwell on the briefness of life, was pondering its own demise. 

Like many other meet-ups affected by stay-at-home rules during the pandemic, it had to go online. But the two counselling psychologists who started it, Devaunshi Mehta and Zena Yarde, worried that with death in the news every day, people might not want to take time out to dwell on it.

Advertisement

"I've had a couple of friends who have shown previous interest in talking about death…but they've told me, 'you need to give me a break right now,'" Mehta told VICE.

But after adapting and going online, they realized that it was also helpful for those who wanted to discuss their fears, even if numbers have dropped off compared to in-person meetings.

'There are some people who have said 'Oh thank goodness! There's a platform to talk about it.' They've really wanted to talk about death especially since we've been surrounded by it,' Mehta added.

Yarde also noted that going online has allowed international visitors to take part. "We had someone from Canada who joined us. And the one before that, we had someone from Boston," she said.

Blending religion, philosophy and caffeine, Asia's myriad 'death cafes' have also cropped up in Hong Kong, South Korea, China, Thailand and Singapore, whether in informal meet-ups or themed businesses. Participants have a snack and think about the inevitable end of one's existence, or what might happen afterwards. Like many establishments across the world, they've gone virtual or received fewer customers as COVID-19 death tolls reach 1 million globally.

Many are also located in countries with Buddhist traditions and influences, which emphasize ideas of rebirth after death, according to Alastair Gornall, an assistant professor in South and Southeast Asian Studies at Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Advertisement

"Our consciousness, in a sense, will go from life to life. The nature of the life that we'll have is determined by our karmic act - the things that we've done in body speech and mind," Gornall told VICE News.

Located in an upscale neighborhood of the Thai capital Bangkok, the Kid Mai Death Awareness Cafe takes the pondering one step further and offers customers the chance to lay down in a coffin and sip drinks that remind them of life's finite nature.

000_13P80E.jpg

This photo taken on April 5, 2018, shows a man lying inside a traditional Thai coffin at the Kid Mai Death Awareness Cafe, an exhibition built to educate the public about death and Buddhism, in Bangkok. With drinks called "death" and "painful" on the menu and a skeleton splayed out on a couch in the corner, the meet-your-maker theme is alive and well at this open-air lunch spot in the Thai capital. Photo: LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA / AFP

Assistant Professor Veeranut Rojanaprapa created the cafe for his PhD thesis in philosophy and religion at Saint John's University in Thailand, where the majority of the population is Buddhist. He told VICE News that he wanted to make people aware of the value of life and to "make them less greedy and angry."

"My research found that learning by experience is the most effective," he said. The cafe has offered a bunch of death-themed drinks on its menu, with names like "last day," "one week left," and "one month left."

000_13Y1MU.jpg

This photo taken on April 5, 2018, shows a man lying inside a traditional Thai coffin at the Kid Mai Death Awareness Cafe, an exhibition built to educate the public about death and Buddhism, in Bangkok. With drinks called "death" and "painful" on the menu and a skeleton splayed out on a couch in the corner, the meet-your-maker theme is alive and well at this open-air lunch spot in the Thai capital. Photo: LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA / AFP

Thailand is no longer under lockdown and local transmission cases are almost non-existent, but customer levels at some indoor businesses may not be back to normal levels due to lack of tourists and lingering wariness over closed spaces.

Even with few pandemic restrictions in place across the country, the cafe now gets about 20 customers on the weekdays and 50 on the weekends. Veeranut said that before the virus, he would see double those numbers.

Advertisement

However, he doesn't see a link between the lower attendance and reluctance to be reminded of death during the pandemic. There are no plans to close to cafe despite the lower numbers and he believes things will bounce back once the virus has been defeated.

In Singapore, financial consultant Raj Mohammad started organizing informal meetings at various cafes around the island nation to discuss death about five years ago, with the intention of getting people to accept it as part of life. He told VICE News that he did so because he had always been intrigued by death and wanted to have that conversation with others.

While he has also gone virtual, he doesn't see the pandemic as a factor in the number of participants, but more the stigma around discussions of death.

"People will always be careful about that," he said.

But Mohammad believes the pandemic has accentuated the need for people to confront the reality of death and related issues swirling through their minds at the moment. He pointed to the Singaporean prime minister's recent announcement of a COVID-19 mental health task force.

In Mumbai, the Talking Death owners Mehta and Yarde believe death cafes are here to stay, and if anything they are even more relevant.

"If humanity survives to see life after the pandemic, I think the need to talk about our own vulnerabilities and this very dystopian time is going to be imminent," Mehta told VICE News.