tea cup with skull-heart-and-flower illustrations
An image from the Death Cafe website.

“This isn’t meant to be a morbid conversation, but a very human one.” So started the Death Cafe held Saturday afternoon in a small room at the West branch of the Berkeley Library. Cookies, coffee and cool drinks in the back.

The speaker was Jason Popko, the cafe’s facilitator or host, as he smiled gently at the packed room of around 30 people sitting around tables arranged in a big square. “This is the largest group we’ve had so far,” he commented, asking for feedback on whether they should break into two. No one spoke up, and the cafe commenced.

Founded in London in 2011, Death Cafes are lightly guided group conversations about death — following the wants, needs and curiosities of those in the room.

The concept, which is trademarked, uses a social franchise model, where the aim is social not monetary benefit. Attending is free. Facilitators are volunteers. Names are optional.  

Anyone using the Death Cafe term must follow its how-to guide. Among other words of advice and encouragement, the guide includes the concept’s principles, by which Death Cafes are offered:

• With no intention of leading participants to any conclusion, product or course of action.

• As an open, respectful and confidential space where people can express their views safely.

• On a not-for-profit basis.

• Alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food – and cake!

In Berkeley on Saturday, the cafe started with a round-the-room, “What brought you here?”

Among those in attendance were a death doula, a funeral director, a hospice nurse, a mortician, a licensed embalmer and a former cemetery manager.

Some spoke of their moving, painful or intense personal experiences with death, at the side of a parent or partner. Moments, or weeks of moments, they’re still contemplating, processing.

Jason Popko. Credit: Kate Darby Rauch

Many spoke of a desire to feel better prepared for their own death. For some, this centered on the practical, such as wanting information on which legal documents are best for making sure one’s desires are met. For others this ventured into the less tangible.“I’m really starting to discover I’m 87,”  one woman said. “I don’t want to die. I have to come to terms with it. It’s good to be here.”

The group leaned toward older, but younger people were there too, men and women. No kids. 

The event’s guide, Popko, a Berkeley resident, has led five monthly Death Cafes to date, all at the library’s West branch. He approached the library about using its community room for the purpose, and was warmly received, he said. There’s no charge for the community room. The library provides the snacks. Popko has recently started receiving a stipend from Friends of the Berkeley Library for his work.

Popko’s Death Cafe interest grew from witnessing the deaths of his parents, he said. “I was there for their last breath. It was a beautiful experience. It was freezing cold, but I was very warm inside.”

A woman at the table reflected on her father’s “sad and difficult” death a couple of years ago, and how he couldn’t talk about dying.  “I wish that I could have made it easier for him; I’d like to learn how to make it easier.”

A man said he saw a notice for the cafe. “Something is pulling me in,” he said. “So many of my heroes and icons have passed away recently. Many were younger than me.”

To date, Death Cafes have been held in at least 85 countries, according to the organization’s website. During the pandemic, many went remote. A quick search on the site’s locator tool brings up future cafes in Ecuador, Alberta, Germany,  England, Florida, Texas and many more.

Death Cafe founder Jon Underwood developed the concept based on the work of Swiss sociologist and ethnologist, Bernard Crettaz, a scholar of death who organized death conversations in cafes (Cafe Motals) after his wife passed away in 1999. (Both men have died.) The goal is simply stated in Death Cafe literature, if not simply reached: “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” 

Monthly Death Cafes will continue at the West library, according to Aimee Reader, the library’s communications analyst. Check the library’s calendar for details.

Exterior of library
The West branch of the Berkeley Public Library. File photo: Pete Rosos

Cafes have been held at other Berkeley sites, as well, according to the Death Cafe locator tool, including on Gilman Street in August. There have also been Death Cafes in Oakland, Albany, Alameda. 

To host a cafe, all that’s needed is a site, a host (such as the library), a facilitator or guide, and “people who want to talk about death,” says the website.

From the guide: “In the Death Cafe there are no hierarchies. We all meet simply as people who are going to die. As such any facilitators who work around death and dying should be willing to leave their professional identity at the door.”

They shared personal experiences, as well as lessons, wisdom and spill-over from their jobs. “I’m scared of dying like everyone else,” said the death doula.

An 87-year-old woman felt differently: “My death is coming. I’m not afraid of it, at least not yet.”

There was talk of the importance of discussing death with your kids, before you can’t. Talk of celebrating your life, before you’re no longer among the living. Talk of what it actually feels like to die — the sensations of the process. 

Loved ones lost to COVID were mentioned, as was physician-assisted-death. Heads nodded. Eye contact was exchanged. Several said it wasn’t their first Death Cafe. 

At one point, Popko reminded participants that he is not a grief counselor, and the experience is not grief counseling, in keeping with a Death Cafe rule. There are people professionally trained in this, he explained.

Humor was a regular visitor at the 90-minute cafe.

“What brought me here was that I was renewing my library card,” said an attendee, bringing  chuckles. 

A scholar whose work included death said, “Oddly, today the only form of death on my mind is resuscitating my iPad, which is dying. I think that’s connected. There are all kinds of death.”

Near the end of the hour-and-a-half session, someone mused about long-gone people visiting her in her dreams: “I’ve had people visit me who died 30 years ago,” she said. “It’s so interesting how the brain can remember people.”

Following up, a woman shared a story of going for a Tarot reading years ago. She’d been dreaming of her father, no longer alive. As she entered the room, she said, the card reader looked up and said: “Please ask your dad to leave, he’s disturbing this meeting.”

“In your sleep or on your shoulder, you never know,” the participant told the Death Cafe.

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...