In 2010, in his East London home, British web designer Jon Underwood held the first death café, based on the ideas of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz.
The café was meant to be an intellectual salon-type discussion of death, and it garnered enough interest that Underwood developed a website to help other people host their own.
“At death cafés people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death,” the website says. “Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
Since Underwood’s first café, 1,642 have taken place across the globe to act not as grief counseling, but as a place to discuss ideas. On March 16, four Florida Gulf Coast University students will bring it to campus.
Sociology major Toria Kwan, who first heard about the café in a “social organization of death and dying” class last semester, is co-hosting the event with fellow seniors Anna Armijo, Amy Weyer and Richard Lottier.
Kwan, Armijo and Weyer went to a death café in Sarasota at the end of February to get a better idea of how to host one.
“We weren’t really sure what to expect,” Kwan said. She didn’t know if the discussion would be morbid, or if people would actively participate at all. “We were like, ‘Are people actually going to talk or are we going to sit here awkwardly and stare at each other?’ But the entire discussion was pretty much like a college class where someone will make a point and someone will go off of that. There was never really a lull to the conversation.”
Kwan was surprised by how casual the conversation was.
“It wasn’t lighthearted, but it didn’t feel gloomy and morbid,” she said.
The Sarasota café, which has been held at least once a month since June 2014, is facilitated by hosts who own a wellness and inspiration center. In hosting their own death café, the students were unable to find an official facilitator. They approached both Counseling and Psychological Services and Prevention and Wellness, but the groups were wary of being directly involved with the event.
“CAPS didn’t want to seem like they were pushing an agenda, which is understandable,” Kwan said. “Prevention and Wellness couldn’t help out for similar reasons.”
FGCU’s Death Café will be facilitated by the student-hosts themselves, and the FGCU Sociology Club has partnered with them to promote the event. Publix has donated a sheet cake to the event so that the students can keep in tradition with the original death café.
Other students in the sociology capstone class are doing projects about homelessness and tattoo culture, but the death café group felt it was relevant to the student body to discuss the afterlife.
“There were recent deaths on campus so we figured part of the discussion could be a way of adjusting to that and about being more open and able to talk about it,” she said. “There’s a lot of stigma surrounding that.”
Kwan said the group would be happy even with a small number of attendees.
“Even if one person comes and has a changed perspective, it’s good. It doesn’t have to have a hundred people come. It could just be one person.
“There’s a lot of death in the media, but we’re so desensitized to it and when it comes down to the nitty gritty — end of life care, hospice, the right to die, assisted suicide, actually facing it — we look away,” Kwan said.
“In the news there are bombings and school shootings and in movies the body count is in the hundreds, and it just doesn’t mean anything to us because it’s on a screen. But once it’s in front of us we don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “We don’t want to be reminded that we are mortal, but it’s ok. That’s the one thing that’s truly connecting us.”
Death Café will be held at 5 to 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 16 in Sugden Hall 114. A second café will be held at 5 to 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 10 in Cohen Center 247. The death café website can be accessed at deathcafe.com, and the death café group members and sociology club partners will be tabling from noon to 2 p.m. on March 12 and 13.