PHILADELPHIA — The second-floor Starbucks at the Rittenhouse Barnes & Noble store is unremarkable in almost every way. The cafe’s neat geometry of sea-green tables, identical pastries, and open MacBooks yields, more or less, the same Starbucks experience you would find anywhere.
Those who happen to be regular customers at this specific Starbucks might not have noticed Pat Bubb, a woman in her 60s with a bun of blond hair who makes her way through the line at 6:45 p.m. on the last Monday of every month, orders a drink, and begins claiming tables with small placards. Bubb’s cards feature a logo — the LOVE sculpture, with a skull as the O — and some text: “Welcome to the Death Cafe.”
The Death Cafe — which might sound to you, as it did to me, like a high school metal band, or Wednesday Addams’ start-up — is not a cafe, although the Philadelphia branch does meet in Starbucks. The name refers to a loose, international network of people interested in death who periodically get together to talk about it. Bubb and her two cohosts have been holding some of these gatherings in Philadelphia since October 2013.
The Death Cafe brand operates as a “free affiliate scheme,” meaning anyone can host one of the events if he or she follows a set of fairly straightforward guidelines (i.e., each meeting should have refreshments). There are some constraints — cafes can’t be for-profit or promotional, for instance — but mostly the requirements are, as organizers often put it, “coffee, cake, and conversations about death.”
In Death Cafe crowds, that slogan gets thrown around a lot, in part because it captures, in very little space, the events’ ethos: casual, unsomber engagements with mortality. Per the guidelines, the cafe is explicitly not a counseling group, and proselytizing (religious or secular) is off-limits — patrons attend simply to chat about death.
Chatting about death?
The notion of the Death Cafe represents the response of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz to our inability to speak frankly about death in Western culture.
But Crettaz’s response to our feelings on death has raised a few questions: To what extent is there, outside of emotional and religious means, a casual but concrete way to talk about death? And what could a group of strangers — as most Death Cafe attendees inevitably are — have to say to one another about it?
At least those were the questions that recently took me to Starbucks, clutching a Venti citrus tea, and preparing to unpack death’s crushing inevitability.
When I arrived, Bubb was passing around a handout that went over the rules and offered a few death-related maxims to inspire conversation. The full assembly of about 20 gathered shortly after, sifted into small groups, and, without announcement or starting pistol, began to talk.
I found myself at a small table beside a Methodist minister; a performance artist; a licensed “celebrant” (someone trained to perform rituals of any variety); a gray-haired man with a soul patch, skull jewelry, and a degree from the University of Metaphysics; and the operator of a philosophy social network called hmmm.com.
I had come fully expecting to meet a group of people rather like the woman I’d spoken to earlier that day, a Death Cafe organizer named Bernadette Laster (who, notably, has no affiliation with the Barnes & Nobles crowd. She used to host a different Philly Death Cafe, and the two cafes did not get along). Laster had described her line of work as “medical intuitive healing.”
“I read where people are hemorrhaging their energy,” she said, “and prescribe a plan of action.” (Her plans of action, she assured me, often involve visiting a licensed physician.) Much like her line of work, Laster’s strategies for talking about death often rely on broad statements, insights that cast such wide nets they are certain to capture something true.
When my group began talking, after a somewhat stilted introduction, our conversation pushed passed the general to the hair-splittingly specific. The actual moment of transition, from awkwardness and to sincere discussion, came when the performance artist wondered aloud how, exactly, we can nurture someone’s legacy after they die. We all chewed on this for a moment, murmuring possible responses — getting a tattoo to remember them by, wearing their clothes — until the soul-patch fellow, Eric Dowd, piped up.
“My father was not a materialistic man by any means,” he said. “What he did have was a voice. He was a soloist. There are recordings of my father — singing at weddings, singing at funerals. Sometimes, when I go to my mom’s house, I’ll hear his voice, and, for a moment, I’ll be confused.”
He pulled out his phone and pressed play. The group sat in silence for a full 80 seconds, listening to a tenor whose voice sounded rich even from the tinny speakers of a cellphone.
Once we moved past small talk, what emerged was an exchange like that one: a patchwork of monologues, not striving for grand explanation or spiritual platitude, but content with small portraits of our pedestrian encounters with death.
Death Cafe’s rule against ideology — no proselytizing allowed — seems minor in the guidebook, but it is central to Death Cafe’s fundamental pleasure. With faiths and hypotheses banned from conversation, what remains are merely stories: hard to fight over, and helpful to hear.
The Philadelphia Death Cafe — and really all Death Cafes — exist because an Englishman named Jon Underwood founded the Death Cafe website in 2011. Since then, followers have hosted 4,942 Death Cafes in 51 countries.
In July, Underwood died unexpectedly. He was 44.