‘Death positivity’ may initially sound like a strange concept. After all, many of us may fear death, find it an uncomfortable topic, something we would rather not talk about. Yet, death is what unites us all – it is inevitable – and ‘death positivity’ is a term used to describe the approach that encourages people to speak about death openly. A Death Café is an example of a place where people can do this, together – gathering over refreshments to discuss death.

Sounds morbid? The objective of a Death Café is anything but. Talking about death isn’t intended to be downcast – it instead opens up awareness and connection. Coming together with others to talk about it can be a hugely beneficial experience; whether people want to share their own attitudes to death, talk about personal experiences or consider the plans people can make around death and dying. For example, people often only contemplate end-of-life care, funeral planning and the process itself when they are faced with it, making it all-the-more-daunting… and this doesn’t need to be the case.

A comfortable setting to discuss death of course matters – and where better than a café? This underlines the Death Café approach: providing a welcoming, relaxed and confidential space for people to come together, often over tea and cake. It is important to acknowledge that this is not a grief or counselling service, but a friendly communal gathering - no set agenda, just the opportunity for discussion.

Who can get involved? People of all ages can talk about death, as the reality is that we will all experience it our lives. From people who are accustomed to discussing death to those who are just curious, all are welcome. We can learn from other cultures too; some much more open to acknowledging death and discussing it openly.

Thankfully, awareness of the importance of talking about death in the UK is increasing, especially thanks to initiatives from organisations such as Dying Matters – which runs an annual Dying Matters Awareness Week, 11 to the 17 of May for 2020. Various related events take place in Bristol every year, with Arnos Vale Cemetery one of the fringe venues. The cemetery also hosts its own annual Life, Death (and the Rest) event earlier in the year; four days of talks, walks and creativity that focuses on talking about death. In addition, Good Grief Bristol is a new festival exploring the human experience of grief, 11-17 May 2020, funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Some people think that death is a dark topic – but actually discussing it shines a light on the subject and makes it much easier to comprehend. Here in Bristol, Arnos Vale Cemetery evidently is a key example of a place people can visit, consider death, the work related to it and its implication on our lives. Furthermore, about 10 miles from the city are the Memorial Woodlands at Earthcott Green, Alveston – another place where death is openly considered and discussed, including through the likes of past Seminar and Lecture Series’.

A Death Café in turn provides a space where people may talk about the deaths of people close to them, their own death, death in society or may even just want to sit and listen. 

Arnos Vale in Autumn

Death Café at Arnos Vale Cemetery

Established in 1837, Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery surely is a historic setting for a Death Café – and is itself a place that helps to facilitate discussions about death, dying, cemeteries and our attitudes to them, through its ongoing programme of events. The Death Café is part of this, an ongoing monthly feature, hosted at the Spielman Centre. Organised by Mary, Peter and Gwen, this allows for a relaxed and welcoming afternoon (the sessions are typically 2pm - 4pm) discussing death– with an ever-changing mix of visitors, meaning that conversation is always fresh and varied.

Here at Haunt Bristol we spoke to Mary Tutaev to find out more:

“The first regular Death Café was set up in Spring 2013 by a man called Leo Searle who had experienced Death Cafés online, and as there wasn't one in Bristol, he decided to start one… now it has been running for nearly 7 years. During that time, we have been lucky to have held the cafés in a variety of places, all very supportive and wanting to help promote the Death and Death Positivity movement.

“In terms of the current venue, Adela Straughan - Events and Marketing Manager for Arnos Vale Cemetery - approached me asking if I would be interested to hold our sessions there, offering one of their splendid buildings to us where we could hold regular monthly meetings (Sunday afternoons 2-4pm). This was a superb opportunity to blend our movement in such an appropriate, beautiful, historical and cultural place with an outstanding example of Victoriana as well as current funeral practices. The grounds are a living memorial and contain so much evidence of how death has been viewed over time. This 45-acre treasure also contains woodland that does much to attract wildlife and calm the soul and yet is in the middle of a busy bustling city. I feel privileged to hold our cafés here, and all staff are very supportive of our aims. The inspiration for starting here was, I would say, a lucky streak of synchronicity - and we all share a strong recognition that death, which is a natural part of life, needs to be talked about and ideas and experiences shared.

“It’s an irony that often it's easier to talk with 'strangers’ than friends or families that may struggle with this topic for a myriad of reasons. Hopefully there is a feeling of sensitivity, compassion and trust at the meetings that provides a safe space for people to talk about very meaningful and personal experiences.

“The format is relatively simple in that there is no set agenda for each monthly meeting. I begin with a welcome and general rules of what the cafe constitutes as well as some respect rules of confidentiality - and also a gentle reminder that we are not a bereavement support or counselling group (it’s important to mention that I do however have a list of support groups should someone feel they need specialist help). We then optionally introduce ourselves and our reason for coming which is a natural way for us to start conversations, as often someone will open the discussion by way of introduction… then a whole range of topics are discussed.

Arnos Vale Circle

“One of the questions asked by people who are interested but haven’t attended yet is ‘isn't it depressing or morbid, heavy or downcast?’ I can honestly say that the biggest emotion often expressed is relief that there is an opportunity to talk about issues that society still struggles with... and yes, we do smile and share humour as well as sensitively listen to each other! There is a short break half way through the meeting to get refreshments and cake at the café too - an important part of any meeting! In fact, cake for most people is a welcoming, comforting food and is often part of ceremonies and gatherings. We then continue for the last hour, again the conversation organically happening, and have a short review time at the end.

“Many friendships grow from initial meetings, as does the membership with over 480 Facebook members, and a mix of regular and new people attending. Ideas, articles and books are swapped freely and there is a wonderful feeling of generosity towards each other. Arnos Vale Cemetery also provides free parking on site, which makes getting there easier, and of course has fully disability access.

“Anyone can come to the Death Café and we have a mixture of ages from 18 to 90 plus, all learning from each other and open to different outlooks .You don't have to have experienced the death of a loved one, friend or colleague. Maybe there are observations or concerns that a person hasn't been able to discuss with others, or they are beginning to feel they want to explore this very natural part of life. There will be poignant memories and experiences shared, and moments of reflection and quietness too… but always relief that an opportunity has been provided. Always a supportive group who will listen and share without judgement or instruction, we recognise the need to explore many topics and aim to provide a sensitive space that is inclusive.

“Talking about death issues doesn't have to be negative or regarded as negative if as a society, a group and individuals we explore this topic with sensitivity, curiosity and kindness to each other. I have never witnessed or heard anyone say that it has been a negative experience attending the many Death Cafés that exist nationally and indeed worldwide. “To get involved, either people can request to join Death Cafe Bristol on Facebook or email me tutaev@btinternet.com.”

The Death Café is donation entry and all are welcome – with details of dates and updates via the Death Café Facebook group. A previous documentary about the Death Café movement in Bristol was also made, written by Phoebe Holman. 

Pop-up Death Café with Sue Brayne

Join Sue Brayne, author of Living Fully, Dying Consciously and Lorraine Clark for a pop-up Death Café in Downend on Thursday 27 February (more details available here). Presented as ‘a chance to talk about life and death, and what really matters’, this is set to be welcoming and warm experience, along with plenty of refreshments and cake from Lorraine’s kitchen! Conversation over a cup of tea with a group of new people can be a surprisingly revelatory way to talk about death, and Sue after all has extensive experience in organising Death Cafes; regularly running events in Bristol as well as Bradford on Avon and Cirencester. Also the author of The D Word: Talking about Death and Dying, and Nearing the End of Life: A guide for family, friends and carers, Sue studied an MA in the Rhetoric and Rituals of Death and is passionate in increasing conversation about death wherever possible. Contact her in advance for booking a space at sue.brayne@gmail.com

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