The experience of death in contemporary American society is frequently divided along racial, ethnic, and religious lines [1
]. Although the American death culture cannot be categorized easily, American individualism, our unwillingness to accept aging and death, and the “keep them alive at all costs” medical system has a very strong influence on our perception of end of life [2
Death Café (DC), the Death Salon, and the Order of the Good Death are all part of the Death Positive movement that seeks to counter a collective reluctance to embrace mortality [3
]. The Order of the Good Death and its event, Death Salon, focus on bringing together professionals to discuss the broader cultural impacts of death; DC focuses on one’s personal interactions with mortality. Death Café is a grassroots organization driven by volunteers who feel strongly about creating a safe space for people to meet, eat cake, drink tea or coffee, and discuss death with no agenda, objectives or themes [5
]. Rather than a grief support or counseling session, DC is a private, group-directed discussion.
Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid developed the Death Café model based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz, Swiss sociologist [3
]. DC’s objective is to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives” [3
]. Death Cafes spread quickly across Europe, North America and Australasia (Australia, New Zealand, the island of New Guinea, and neighboring islands in the Pacific Ocean). As of this writing, 4096 Death Cafes in 42 countries have been held since September 2011, all run by volunteers [4
Holding a DC requires a host and facilitator, a venue with refreshments, and people who want to talk about death. A host is not necessary to the process, but the facilitator is essential. Both roles can be combined, but the facilitator only performs their role during the actual DC session. The DC facilitators (DCF) welcome the attendees to the DC and share the guidelines. Anyone can host a DC, but the DC facilitators and the DC attendees (DCA) must agree to follow the DC guidelines: not-for-profit, held in an accessible, respectful, and confidential space, with no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product, or course of action, and serving refreshing drinks and cake [6
]. Rarely do the DCA violate these rules, but if they do, the DCA are reminded of the rules and then redirected. If the attendee chooses not to comply, then they would be asked to leave.
Becoming a DCF is informal. The founders of the DC movement ask that a potential DCF read and download their DC Guide, which includes suggestions for holding a DC [5
]. They ask that potential facilitators read and adhere to the DC guidelines and post their DC date and information on the DC website.
The DC is an interesting phenomenon to study because the organization is entirely run by volunteers. These volunteers find and reserve the venue, design, print and distribute the fliers, purchase the refreshments, run the DC session, debrief the participants, and clean up afterwards. Many of the DCF hold their DC at least once a month, if not more frequently.
Death Café attendees typically have two different perspectives. Some attendees have not yet experienced death in their family and friends’ circle and wish to converse with others about their beliefs on death and dying. Other DC attendees are those who have experienced the death of a loved one and are driven to make sense of the experience, particularly if the attendee has had a less than satisfying experience with a loved one’s death. Our families are the initial sources for all our beliefs, including our attitudes and opinions, about death and dying [7
]. Either directly or indirectly, to some degree, most of the DC attendees have a common goal of reconciling their family narratives regarding death during a Death Café where talking about death is welcomed. As a comparatively new phenomenon, there is relatively little existing academic research on this topic [8
]. To date, the current scholarship on Death Café focuses on its history and the lack of diversity among attendees, but they do not tell us about the volunteers, the DCF, and why they do this work. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine the DCF motivations for holding DC.