I'm not an idiot, I promise, but as I'm walking to visit the Hackney home of Jon Underwood, the man spearheading the effort to open a permanent Death Café in London, I spontaneously envision it as being decorated with skulls. It would be consistent, if nothing else: Underwood, who turns forty-three this week, has for the past five years devoted himself to end-of-life advocacy, death-related charity work, and promoting frank discussions about death. Mortality, you could say, is his calling. Now, after acting as de facto spokesman for the worldwide café mortel movement – a phenomenon which has seen people gather in restaurants and private residences to talk about (spoiler alert) all things death-related – Underwood has set up a Crowdfunder page to help him gather funds for a brick-and-mortar version of the roving global sensation.
The day I meet him, Underwood is cosily dressed in a thick wool sweater. He is imposingly tall, but his manner is gentle and disarmingly genuine. Unlike many people, myself included, he never seems to feel the need to deflect from naked sentiment by making an off-colour joke. I ask him first about his understanding of death in his early years, and he seems pretty blasé about it. "It wasn't a big issue when I was growing up," he says. "I remember realising when I was young that I was going to die, and death was a preoccupation when I was a teenager, but I didn't suffer a major bereavement."
So how did this man, in all respects you average British bloke, father of two, survivor of no life-altering trauma, become the engine behind the growth of death café? The way he tells it, one interest flowed smoothly into another, and they all, in the end, come back to death. After a ten-year stint working for Tower Hamlets Council, Underwood found himself feeling a little lost. He'd had great success implementing programs for people returning from short-term prison sentences, scoring a Beacon Council award for his team's work in 2008. But still, a part of him felt that he was addressing the effects of an issue, rather than its cause – "the worm at the core," to borrow from the title of a recent favourite book of his. After a prolonged meditation on his next step, he decided that death and dying were the most important subjects of all, and that he should focus his work around them. "That was when the dam broke. All these ideas came to mind. I could hardly sleep for two weeks," he recalls. "Then my stepdad gave me a clipping from The Independent about the work of Bernard Crettaz and his first café mortel in Paris. And I just read it and I thought, 'That's it.'"
With the help of his psychotherapist mother, Underwood began hosting death cafes in the basement of his home in 2011; he also built two websites, a directory of services for those dealing with death and dying called Find Me Help, and Funeral Advisor, which is like Yelp for the funereal world. He began receiving requests from people all over the world – most of them middle or upper class women, he says – interested in hosting their own death cafes. In the past four years, more than 2,400 have been held in thirty-two countries. Underwood says that creating a permanent version was part of his plan from the beginning, and he believes so strongly in the idea that he's laboured over the business plan for two years; he's even dipped into his savings to hire financial planners, experts in social franchising, and videographers, among other professionals, to ensure the pitch is as polished as possible. With all the pieces in place, the campaign went live on October 19th. Until mid-December, shares of the Death Café, which will be classified as a community-benefits society, will be available for fifty quid a pop. Shareholders will be invited to special events, and also be entitled to vote for a board of directors.
Other than knowing it will feature a vegetarian menu, Underwood has no set plans for Death Café, because he hopes that people will feel compelled to get involved and take advantage of the space in their own ways. "It is owned and run by the community and it will go in the direction that the community wants it to go in. All we really say is, 'It's focused on death, and it's inclusive.'" Of course Death Café will host plenty of traditional Crettaz-style café mortels, but Underwood imagines it will also be available for film screenings, classes on will writing, support group meetings, and death drawing sessions ("It seems to be naked people with skulls," he says, when I express some disbelief at the concept.) While he mostly manages to have a que sera, sera attitude about it all, he does admit to being nervous about navigating the cut-throat world of London real estate. "[London is] an extremely hostile environment for a small business, especially a left field small business like this. But we will try and find somewhere to be in that context. Hopefully we can find some sympathetic landlord in an appropriate place." Ideally, he'd like to find somewhere in central London, like Kings Cross or Russell Square; when all is said and done, he'd also hope to be considered for a general managerial position, but that's up to the board to decide.
Death café, and its underpinning philosophy of free dialogue about death, has gotten a lot of press in the past five years; much of it has been thoughtful, but all too often, someone presents the idea as being interesting solely for its quirk factor. Underwood, to contrast, thinks seriously engaging with the topic has the potential to inform every aspect of society, from how we make laws to how harshly or favourably we judge others to how we protect the environment. "I believe that bringing death into consciousness, evolving our relationship with death, is one way of getting under the skin of the way we live," he says. His enthusiasm is quiet but profoundly moving. At one point, when he talks about the prospect of people getting inadequate care at the end of their lives, I hear a little catch in his voice. "The idea that people are getting something substandard, I take it as a personal insult, almost. I just can't stand it." That isn't to say he's not witty – when he explains to me how the physical Death Café is financially separated from the intellectual property death café, he says that's because if the IRL version fails, it can always be repurposed into a cat café or something (I'm tempted to suggest a hybrid of the two – death and kittens! – but I stop myself when I realise I'm deflecting again.)
And for the record, there's only one needlepoint skull pillow in his living room.
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