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The Cambridge coffee meetings that are grounds for talking about death

By Ben Comber

People at Death Cafe Cambridge
People at Death Cafe Cambridge

Death Cafe meetings have been held for the past couple of years to give people the chance to talk about the one thing we all have in common – the fact that we are going to die.

It’s not as macabre as it sounds – in fact, organiser Penny Hall says the meetings are incredibly uplifting and life-affirming.

They are not bereavement or counselling sessions and there is no agenda – they are simply an opportunity for people to talk about a topic, sometimes considered taboo, they might think about occasionally.

Following the success of the meetings, the Cambridge group is organising a Dying for Life Festival in May to mark Dying Matters Awareness Week.

Penny said: “A lot of people talk about their feelings about their own death or someone that’s been bereaved, about their own relationships and experiences. It’s anything really that can come up that’s to do with death, whether they believe in an afterlife or not. Every person is different.

“For most people who come, it’s about facing up to the fact that we’re all going to die. It’s very life-affirming. When I leave I usually feel a lot better then when I arrived and uplifted really. There’s often laughter and tears, but it’s not counselling.

“Some people come and don’t say a word – silence is okay as well and you don’t have to respond to what someone believes or has said.

“At the last meeting, someone said it’s better talking to people you don’t know. It’s really a bunch of strangers sharing things that can be quite intimate.”

The detail of what’s discussed is confidential, but Penny said a particular meeting that has stayed with her was one that happened on June 16 last year – the day that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, was shot and stabbed multiple times in Birstall, where she had been due to hold a constituency surgery, by Thomas Mair.

“People agree not to speak about what’s said, but I remember when we had a meeting just a few hours after Jo Cox had been murdered and that was very poignant,” Penny said.

“That was very powerful and strong, but it was supportive to be in a place to talk about it.

“It can be emotional, but I think people laugh more than they cry at most meetings.”

Death Cafes are based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz, who held Café Mortal meetings in Geneva in 1999 following the death of his wife. Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid started the Death Cafes as they continue now in London, in 2011. They are now held in 42 countries in Europe, North America and Australasia.

Usually, between 15 and 30 people will attend the Cambridge meetings. Penny says she sees many different faces each time, and ages range widely, from people in their 20s to their 70s.

The next Death Cafe Cambridge meeting is at the CB2 Bistro at 5-7 Norfolk Street on Wednesday, March 22. Because conversation can be very immersing, organisers ask that attendees show up at 6.45pm.

Large turnouts can result in small discussion groups being set up with moderators who ensure respectful conversation.


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