Unlimited: Death Café


Southbank Centre invited people to take part in a tea party-style discussion of death and dying on Sunday 11 September. Emmeline Burdett encountered the ’encouraging, safe space for open discussion and shared understanding of ideas about and encounters with death and dying’ set up as a Death Café

Simple line drawing of a teacup decoarated with a skull

Death Cafe

“In the midst of life we are in death”, so the Bible tells us. But – a discussion about death, in a ‘supportive environment’, in the midst of a Disability Arts festival in which the vibrant creativity of disabled artists is showcased and celebrated? The inclusion in the festival of a discussion about death seemed somewhat incongruous, especially as, unlike Liz Carr’s new work ‘Assisted Suicide: The Musical’, its raison d’être was not to offer a perspective not-often heard, but to encourage the sharing of views, whatever those views might be.

‘Death Cafés’ have been running in the UK since 2011, founded by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid, based on a model originally pioneered in Switzerland. Our hosts were Jo, a hospice worker, and Polly, a clinical psychologist. They explained how the concept worked but made no attempt to influence any of the discussions.

The room was set up like a real café, with the participants sitting at tables, and free tea, coffee and cake was available. At my table were two older ladies, two young women, an early middle-aged representative of the British Council in Egypt, Colin Hambrook and myself.

Having such a cross-section of society represented at our table helped to make our discussion particularly broad, and a number of topics were discussed. One of the young women spoke movingly about her late grandfather’s neglect in an NHS hospital – he ultimately died due to a completely treatable blood clot, which nobody had spotted, because nobody had bothered to really investigate what was wrong with him, apparently just thinking “He’s old – why bother?”. On this basis, the young woman was adamant that it was not safe to introduce any ‘euthanasia’ measures – we need instead to tackle the idea that some lives are devoid of value.

This very much chimed with a keynote speech I heard at last week’s Lancaster Disability Studies Conference. The speech was by Sara Ryan, the mother of Connor Sparrowhawk (‘Laughing Boy’) who drowned in a bath at a facility run by Southern Health. Sara Ryan pointed out that the staggering number of unexplained deaths of people with learning difficulties in the Trust’s ‘care’ had gone completely uninvestigated, and that Connor’s death was only investigated because she and her supporters pushed for this to happen.

An alternative perspective was provided by the representative of the British Council, who has evidently lived in Egypt for quite some time and was able to give us a good idea of Egyptian attitudes to death and dying. She spoke of how the grieving process there is very structured, with rituals taking place at particular times after a death.

We all felt we had had a profitable discussion, and that Death Cafés and other forms of quasi-philosophical discussion should play a much greater role in our society than they currently do, to enable death to become less of a taboo subject and thereby perhaps to tackle the ideas about the supposed differing ‘worth’ of people’s lives, which current squeamishness allows to be swept under the carpet.