Death Cafes and Coffin Clubs

Death comes out of the shadows.

Posted Jun 05, 2019

rawpixel/Pixabay
Source: rawpixel/Pixabay

Perhaps you are one of the many people who are not aware of a new day dawning in our relationship with death. The vast majority of us fear death and seem to deny that it will ever happen to us personally. But, as they say, none of us will get out of here alive. We started having more open conversations about death and what happens afterwards in the 1960’s and 1970’s  with the publication of such books as On Death and Dying and Life After Life. People began talking about death again and an interest developed to know more about the dying process and how to help the dying and their loved ones. This renewed interest has led to the establishment of the Death Positive Movement.

The Death Positive Movement is all about bringing death out of the darkness and making it something that people can share and talk about. It doesn’t mean that people want to die, but that they want to dispel some of the fears and taboos surrounding death. It is actually a way for people to have more control over what happens to them at the end of life. [1]

They say there are two things we can count on in life: death and taxes. Just as we prepare for our taxes, we can also prepare for our death. It does not mean that we have to be obsessed with death as the Victorians were and make it the main focus of our life, but it is something for which we can prepare. The primary organization leading the Death Positive Movement is The Order of the Good Death. Its focus is on helping people accept that death is a reality and to plan for our eventual inevitability.

So what are Death Cafes and Coffin Clubs and what do they have in common? They are both examples of activities associated with the Death Positive Movement. The Death Cafe was started in London in 2011. Its founder, Jon Underwood wanted to, “create small gatherings where strangers could drink tea, eat cake, and talk informally about death and dying.” Death Cafes are currently said to be in 65 countries. They were brought to the U.S. in 2012 by Lizzy Miles. These free groups are not therapy groups but are opportunities for people to get together to talk about death in a comfortable, confidential, and non-judgemental setting. [2] Carrying on the English tradition, cake is always a part of the meetings but in addition to tea, coffee, water or soft drinks might also be served. The groups I have been involved in are always well attended with some becoming so large that a new venue had to be found to accommodate everyone, ultimately needing to break off into two groups. It is remarkable to see so many people wanting to talk about such a “taboo” topic.

Another example of the Death Positive Movement is the Coffin Club. The first Coffin Club is said to have begun in 2010 in New Zealand and has since spread throughout the country.[3] The clubs typically consist of older adults. They too are similar to a social club where people get together on a weekly basis. They build and decorate their coffins, share a meal together and offer camaraderie to those who are now alone in life. Initially, the clubs began as a way to counter the high cost of funerals, especially the price of a coffin. Self-made coffins are cheaper due in part to their simplicity. They contain no metal and can use reclaimed lumber and other biodegradable materials. The coffins in these clubs are said to range from $250 to $500 as opposed to the thousands of dollars funeral homes charge. Some members report that their fear of death has been lessened as a result of being involved in the club. Coffin Clubs are also found in England and Ireland. While at the time of this piece's publication, I was unable to find any specific Coffin Clubs in the U.S., there are, however, numerous sites online that demonstrate how to make your own coffin.

There is also a renewed interest in green funerals. This type of burial is about caring for the deceased with a minimal impact on the environment. Typically, there is no embalming and the deceased may be wrapped in a shroud and buried in a shallow grave. It is as though what is old is new again as in the past most burials were done in this manner.

End of life Doulas are also an important part of the Death Positive Movement. Beginning in 2003, their numbers have grown exponentially and they have become an integral part of hospices and palliative care groups. The doulas are there to help the dying and their family before and after the death.

There are many more examples of the activities that are associated with the Death Positive Movement. For example, there is the WeCroak app. It is described on their website as follows: “The WeCroak app is inspired by a Bhutanese folk saying: to be a happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily. Each day, We’ll send you five invitations to stop and think about death. Our invitations come at random times and at any moment, just like death. When they come, you can open the app to reveal a quote about death from a poet, philosopher or notable thinker.” [4]

The Death Positive Movement is in no way meant to minimize or trivialize death, but it is a movement that allows people to be an active participant in their death. The fear of death is usually one of people's top-10 fears. We know that when we avoid our fears, it only serves to intensify them. When we confront them, we are able to overcome or lessen them. We feel more in control. Becoming a part of the Death Positive Movement can be as simple as letting your family know about your final wishes. It can give them and ourselves more peace of mind.

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