One Question Quiz
Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyJanuary 5, 2024

A morning at the Death Cafe

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Summer reissue: All around the world, strangers have been meeting to chat about death over coffee. Gabi Lardies goes along one sunny Sunday morning to find out what it’s all about.

First published on August 11, 2023. Click here to read more of our Death Week content.

By 10.23am, there are already 15 people sitting around four pushed-together tables at the Auckland Art Gallery cafe, and me, scanning around them for an unoccupied chair. On one of the tables is a laminated A4 piece of paper. “Auckland Death Cafe,” it reads, “discussions about all things life, death and dying.” Next to it is a rather rotund plastic pink piggy bank, who, like me, is making its first appearance at the Death Cafe.

A week ago, I’d never heard of a Death Cafe, but once you start reading about death, wonderful things appear.

By 10.30 there are 18 of us around the mega table. People with grey hair, no hair, fluffy blonde hair, long black hair and bright orange hair. I’ve never seen any of them before in my life, which is a rare and welcome feeling; in a city where walking down the street means bumping into people you know, having anonymity is nice. Apart from the fact that our brief visits on this earth have aligned, there’s not much in common between us. Ages and ethnicities are varied, there’s short and there’s tall, sweet and savoury, regulars and new faces. 

Kirsty Salisbury, an end of life worker and podcaster who organises this event every month, stands up and introduces herself. She’s only 45 but she’s been thinking about death for over 30 years – since a severe childhood illness. Salisbury quickly runs through the essentials of the event: it’s not a grief support group, nor a place to push beliefs, services or products, and there is no specific agenda. She happily introduces me, the journalist spy, who has promised to keep people’s identities secret. I embarrass myself with a little wave and try to hide behind my tiny 3B1 notebook. Although the idea is to talk about death, “a huge part of death is life,” she says, so just about anything goes. Her long black, with a side of hot water, arrives at the table. “So what do you all want to talk about?”

The first Death Cafe was hosted by Jon Underwood, an English data systems engineer turned buddhist and his psychotherapist mum, Sue Barsky Reid, in September 2011. He had been thinking about death, read about Swiss café mortels in the newspaper and was inspired to host his own. The Death Cafe at Underwood’s home in East London was a “wonderful occasion,” according to the official Death Cafe website. Underwood and Reid then made and freely shared a guide, so anyone could run a Death Cafe, provided they followed the principles. Death Cafes must be voluntarily run, not for profit, and aim to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives”. 

Death Cafes caught on and the idea spread. Around the world, there have been tens of thousands of Death Cafes and hundreds of thousands of people have participated. In Aotearoa, they’ve been hosted in Whangārei, Warkworth, Waiheke, Auckland, Whitianga, Tauranga, Hawkes Bay, Palmerston North, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch, Lincoln, Timaru, Oamaru, Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown.

Today in Auckland, a lady with thick framed glasses and soft white down sparsely populating her scalp offers a starting point. A couple of weeks ago, someone pounced on her at a dinner party, needing to know exactly why she had this particular hairstyle. It’s something I was wondering, but had thought good social etiquette was not to ask. The pouncer, upon hearing it was the fault of chemotherapy, asked “What’s on your bucket list?” The question, and concept of a bucket list, didn’t sit particularly well with her. Should someone, facing the prospect of death sooner rather than later, write a list of extreme activities and start ticking things off?

A discussion ensues. The conversation has turned into considering how best to live. Shouldn’t we already be living the lives we want, since death is always coming? The problem, it’s decided, is that people put off their life until they’re dying – or rather, until they can no longer ignore that they’re dying. I’m trying to consider my own life, follow the conversation, drink my flat white and write notes all at once – it doesn’t work. My mind starts filling up with questions. Is it bad to just go straight home to sit under the heat pump after work? Is it too late to reach out to that friend I haven’t seen in months? How can I live the life I want with the budget I have? Is gardening and reading books a boring way to spend my life?

Senior woman holding a cup of tea and a book, looking delighted
Author contemplates her life. (Photo: Eva-Katalin via Getty)

When I tune back in to the audible conversation, someone is saying it’s problematic to make living into a list, because lists are for chores and things you don’t really wanna do. The person next to them says they love lists. They make a list every year and bring it out on the weekends.

The lady with the glasses and not much hair asks if jumping out of planes, the quintessential bucket list item, is really what we value? A late arrival chimes in. “When someone’s gone, you realise how much you miss the mundane,” she says. Her sister died of cancer, and she’s missed in the mornings over breakfast, in the evenings after work, and all the little inbetween times when no one’s really doing anything in particular, just living. Would it be a waste of life to stick to the ordinary?

To my left, two plates arrive in front of a petite and prim guest. “Does anyone want a spinach and feta roll? I ordered it by accident,” she says. There’s a moment of polite silence, before someone two tables away admits, well, she’d eat it. The plate makes its way across the tables, passed between many hands.

“Will we ever be satisfied, or will we always be discontent?” Salisbury gently nudges the conversation forward. 

A man, with deep smile lines etched through his cheeks, says there’s nothing wasteful about living an ordinary life. He’s been clasping his hands in his lap for most of the session, but now he crosses his arms. Our discontent, he says, is constructed by capitalist consumer culture, which has us scrambling after other people’s dreams. This idea is met warmly by the group. We don’t like capitalism.

Someone else worries that not only is capitalism wasting our lives, but also causing the heat death of the whole planet, which some of us around the table (his eyes flick at me, even though I’ve estimated I’m the fourth or fifth youngest here) may live to see.

“I just want to live a stable, mundane life,” says a 64-year-old. I find this comforting. He is missing his children who live far away, and is preparing to move closer to them.

The conversation keeps pinging around the tables. Are you stuck in the rat race or on the treadmill? Is it possible to live the lives we value? How do diagnoses change our view of life? Are you prepared to die? How has that impacted you? 

Though it’s a big group, only one person ever talks at a time, and everyone else eagerly listens. Around half of us, including me, exclusively listen. I’ve got the excuse of being there to observe, but in truth I often prefer listening when in big groups, and I’m relieved we aren’t goaded to speak. There’s sensitivity to the fact that the conversation does touch difficult and emotional topics. The people who do speak dont steamroll through, they take their time, leave gaps of silence, and invite others by asking questions. There’s a lot of different opinions, and a lot of laughter, from humour that is not too dark – death by falling coconut, for example. I don’t see anyone glancing at their phone, or whispering to their neighbour, or staring off into space. 

The hour passes quickly. I haven’t even scooped up the remnant froth from my flat white, which is the best bit. Salisbury gives the group a five-minute warning – “Is there anything else anyone wants to bring up?”

The conversation returns to the beginning. The idea of a bucket list is mostly trashed, because we should be living the lives we want and value every day. I suspend my cynicism, but the privilege of thinking this is simple, and a matter of personal choice, casts a shadow over my sunny disposition.

Salisbury wraps up by reminding everyone that if they want to come next month, they had better book their place soon. For this event, the waiting list was as long as the number of people that she could host. There are a few apologies – one person will be on a motorcycle ride, another will be in Europe. Salisbury thanks us all for coming, and a quiet applause follows. Then, the group erupts. Everyone seems to be talking at once, in little groups around the tables. Some are wondering if it was the movie with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman that invented the concept of a bucket list, others are talking about the cost of travel, the dangers of riding motorcycles, and the fear of the big C.

A gold coin donation is encouraged, but not required

Salisbury packs up the Death Cafe sign and the piggy bank into her tote bag, and leads me outside. “I never really thought that I was going to focus a massive part of my life into this topic. But I noticed all around me people were really curious, people wanted to talk about it, and they don’t have a place they can talk about death and dying or what it’s all about. I also noticed how much people want to talk about life and how to live,” she says. Like all Death Cafe hosts, she makes no money from it. It’s the first time she’s brought the piggy bank along with her, to help cover costs like the Meetup membership.

Through the window, we can see the group, clustered into smaller groups, still talking. “I don’t know how long they stay,” Salisbury says. She suspects it could be a while, and regulars have started coming earlier and earlier, beating her arrival. Yet, this hasn’t satisfied their keenness. A social group has sprung up alongside the Death Cafe, for activities outlawed by the guide. They have dinners and watch movies (if they include death themes). It seems death is seeping beyond its allocated monthly Sunday morning and becoming a bigger part of people’s lives.

Keep going!