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An Evening at the Death Cafe

Death cafes continue to grow in popularity as people obsessed with mortality meet up to get morbid.
December 19, 2015, 3:30pm

On the second floor of Midtown's Hunan Manor, death loomed.

Panisa Khunprasert and Mike Ma, two strangers who had just met for the first time through Death Café NYC, were talking about the big sleep. Ma imitated his late grandparents and described the emotional burden of being their caregiver during their time in hospice; Khunprasert disclosed the death of her brother and sister in a car crash almost 13 years ago, along with her family's refusal to acknowledge the tragedy.

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"My parents are super practical; they're not emotional," said Khunprasert, a 25-year-old graduate student attending her first Death Café NYC meetup. Her interest in the socially tabooed subject, which she could not share with her friends or family, brought her to the restaurant. "Everything is about moving forward."

Although it's common knowledge everyone eventually ends up six feet under, psychologists note that people continue to dread death and refrain from discussing it. Death cafes, conceived in 2004 by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz as "café mortels," aim to wrest this topic from its status in conversational etiquette as verboten. Death cafe attendees congregate at venues to mull over the subject of death—typically over food or drink, and without any loss of appetite.

Intrigued by Crettaz's death cafe movement, Jon Underwood brought this ideology to London in 2011 where it grew in popularity, with a crowdfunded brick-and-mortar establishment reportedly in the works.

When Audrey Pellicano founded Death Café NYC, she followed the Underwood-Crettaz model: no speakers or lecturers to dominate the conversations, just like-minded social heretics gathering to talk about abstract philosophy and their personal experiences.

"I've seen people that stop drinking. I've seen people feel an urgency to live their life… that's death awareness."

"We really just wanted this to be 'talk about what's on your mind that you can't talk to anybody else around the subject of death,'" Pellicano told Motherboard.

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Pellicano discovered the concept of death cafes through a LinkedIn colleague in Columbus, Ohio. Having worked for several years as a grief counselor, Pellicano recognized that airing grievances in a public setting helps with the healing process, and that de-stigmatizing death actually helps people prepare to discuss their own end of life care.

With no cafes in New York City in 2013, Pellicano hosted her first meetup at Le Pain Quotidien in Chelsea. Six people attended: she and her two children in their twenties, along with three strangers who stumbled upon Pellicano's advertisement on Meetup.com. According to Pellicano, for two hours her children aired grievances over their dead dogs as well as her late father and husband, while the strangers offered their own experiences with death.

The group has grown since then, averaging between 12 and 15 attendees at monthly meetings, with a record of 75. According to Pellicano, cafe meetups attract varying extremes of individuals fascinated by death: millennials to baby boomers; the bereaved needing to vent to the intrigued college student simply obsessed with the idea of mortality. Some even attend because they need to confess—without judgment—that the knock they thought they heard the night before was their relative's ghost trying to contact them from beyond.

At the November Death Café NYC meetup, recurring attendee Joel Herm led his table through a thought experiment where they selected objects to represent themselves after they had died. As a software engineer at the healthcare start up Lifetrend, Herm attended his first death cafe for company research. The intellectual and philosophical discussions intrigued Herm, so he has continued to attend these death cafes to engage with different views on death.

"I think I came into the death cafe having a pretty good sense of how the world and human beings and life and death worked. But that's what I like about the death cafe is that it's given me a lot brighter focus on this particular topic," Herm said. "And that's why I keep going back as well, because… new faces keep coming in."

After vetting death for almost two hours at Hunan Manor, attendees professed having a slightly greater acceptance of the inevitable, and even cheery outlook. This is unsurprising to funerary consultant Todd Van Beck, who claims a mature attitude towards death—meaning accepting instead of avoiding the subject—does improve people's quality of life.

"I've seen people that stop drinking," Van Beck said in a telephone interview, later adding, "I've seen people feel an urgency to live their life; I've seen people that become kinder… That's death awareness."

Khunprasert, as well as several other attendees, left the meetup red-faced from laughing themselves into tears. Emotionally, they claimed they felt a little bit lighter.