Death becomes us

Debbie Young and Alberta Gutteridge on why they set up a ‘Death Cafe’ in Walthamstow

Debbie and Alberta with East of Eden owner Abby McLachlan (credit: Penny Dampier)
Debbie and Alberta with East of Eden owner Abby McLachlan (credit: Penny Dampier)

To many people, talking with strangers about death might sound like an odd way to spend their Saturday afternoon. There is a tendency to avoid the subject, to the point where it is perhaps one of the last great taboos. However, those who attended our first in-person North East London Death Cafe in Walthamstow told us the experience was surprisingly uplifting.

Death cafes are an international phenomenon, founded by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid in their Hackney living room a decade ago, which has since spread to 80 countries. A key ingredient is tea and cake but otherwise there is no agenda, just a safe and confidential space for people to explore their thoughts and feelings around death.

We first had the idea of setting up the cafe what seems like years ago but it was sadly postponed by Covid-19. However, on 25th September, after Abby McLachlan, owner of East of Eden, generously offered the space as a venue, we were finally able to bring it into fruition.

It was lovely seeing people walk through the door with a mix of anticipation and nervousness on their faces and then quickly hearing chatter and laughter as they started introducing themselves. No two Death Cafes are the same, since the conversation completely depends on who is in the group and what each brings to the conversation, but a few themes from this first meeting quickly emerged.

We discussed dealing with the death of a parent and how lonely grief can feel. Friends or colleagues don’t always know what to say and might avoid talking about the person who has died. We also talked about the euphemisms people use instead of the word ‘died’ – “I’m sorry you lost your Mum” or “I’m sorry to hear your Dad passed away”. While ‘dead’ or ‘dying’ can feel harsh to say, for many who have been bereaved, these euphemisms actually minimise the pain they are feeling and don’t acknowledge the enormity and finality of death.

We also discussed how to best help a loved one prepare for their death and how different kinds of memorials influence the grieving process. Some of us felt that a graveyard was too formal and could make people feel pressured to visit regularly, which is why they preferred to choose an appropriate place to scatter ashes or leave some other form of marker.

Ultimately, the biggest things we learned at this first event was how talking about death can bring us closer to life and how much of a desire there is for a space like this in Waltham Forest. Our next event on 6th November was quickly fully booked and we hope to put more events on soon.

Join their mailing list by emailing [email protected]

To see more of Penny Dampier’s photography visit her website