What is a death café?

Tonie Greig and Poppy Mardall outside Tooting Library

Four minute read

The death café movement started in 2010 with a simple idea — provide a space where people can drink tea, eat cake, and talk about death. No strings. No agenda. Just conversation.

This idea struck a chord. So much so that, thirteen years on, over 15,000 death cafes have been held in 85 countries worldwide. Now we’ve started hosting death cafés in Tooting library.

We spoke to facilitators Poppy Mardall, our founder, and Tonie Greig, bereavement counsellor and End-Of-Life Doula, about what you’ll find if you come along.

The next death café is on Friday 19 January 2024. Drop in or let us know you're coming.

Why did you decide to host this death café in Tooting library?

Poppy: Tooting Library is a warm and welcoming place. I bring my kids here at the weekends. I hope hosting the death café here will help attract many different people and different demographics. This is a conversation that’s open to all. It’s about being truly human.

Tonie: I wouldn’t want to hold a death café in a church building or church hall — someone of any faith or none needs to be able to think ‘this is for me’. That’s why a library, a public building, or a coffee shop is ideal.

Poppy: The ethos behind death cafes is that they are not closed off. There are no shut doors and hushed voices — they are in the open. The bookshelves provide a bit of privacy, but they are not walls. It’s a calm space. I’m hoping that there will also be some great books on display too.

If someone wants to come, but hasn’t been to a death café before, what can they expect to happen?

Tonie: There will be someone to greet you at the door and direct you to the table and chairs in the light-filled section at the front of the library. You’ll be able to help yourself to tea or coffee and delicious cake. It’s important to feed the body as well as the soul!

There’s no pressure to talk to anyone if you don’t want to — you can browse the books first and take your time to come over. There’s no signing in, you can just come along. You don’t have to pay.

Poppy: It’s natural for people to be tentative at first, but it doesn’t take long before the conversation takes off. You might expect the conversations to be doomy or dry or scary, but instead they are warm and welcoming, and often quite lively! It’s an open space. Tonie and I are responsible for making the environment safe and welcoming for all.

Tonie: As facilitators, our role is to respond to what happens and to keep time. We don’t have an agenda. We’ll probably start with a question, such as ‘Which is more important longevity or quality of life?’ And then we’re off! It’s about your experience, your questions, your fears. It’s a safe confidential space — everything that’s talked about stays in the room.

There are tissues available! It can be overwhelming when you start talking about death and sharing experiences.

Who do you expect to come to a death café? Is it for people who are grieving or who are expecting to die soon?

Poppy: You don’t need to be dying or near death to come to a death café. In fact, that’s not what it’s for. It’s an opportunity to talk about death before it starts pressing in on us.

Tonie: These conversations help take the lid off that awful feeling of taboo we all carry as we attempt to manage our approach to death. Talking about death helps us live as fully and healthily as we can until the moment of our death.

"The time to talk about dying is when you’re well. Don’t wait until you’re sick and worried!"

How can people benefit from coming along to a death café?

Poppy: These conversations are so enriching. Someone can say something awe-inspiring that you’ve never thought about before.

Tonie: Each group member contributes. We can be each other’s main source of help. If you come to a death café, you are bringing something of yourself which could be valuable for the person next to you.

The first death café was part of the Tooting Festival of Dead. What else took place during the festival?

Tonie: This is the second year of the festival of the dead. The success of last year’s festival was overwhelming!

This year it’s pared down to focus on the weekend of 27-29 October, with children’s craft activities, singing and storytelling held in the Woodfield Pavilion.

Poppy: There is a longing to engage with death but a lack of opportunities to do so. We don’t know how to talk about it in a way which doesn’t feel weird or without feeling the need to apologise for ‘being a bit morbid’! It’s a massive subject, so it’s a privilege to have a festival about it on our turf.

The death café is philosophical and some of the other events in the festival are very spiritual. At Poppy’s we also host an Open Day as part of the festival, which is more practical, inviting people to visit our beautiful, light-filled mortuary, see how we work and ask questions.

Check out our events page for details of upcoming death cafés in Tooting and Sheen.

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