By Dr Naomi Richards, Lecturer in Social Science (End of Life Studies), School of Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Glasgow

THE Scottish Government wants to foster greater openness about death, dying and bereavement. What better way to encourage openness than to sit down with a bunch of strangers and discuss the most incontrovertible and universal of facts over coffee and cake?

This is what happens at death cafes – one-off events held in public venues, usually cafes, where anyone is free to turn up and sit down at a table with a cup of coffee or a slice of cake and start discussing their experiences or concerns. These events aren’t facilitated or guided by a professional – they just involve people turning up to chat openly about something they, and indeed we all, have in common.

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The informal aim of death cafes is to help people appreciate their (finite) lives. Thousands of death cafes have now been organised in 48 different countries, mostly in Europe and America, according to deathcafe.com. We could speculate that these events are the preserve of the middle classes but, regardless, they show a remarkable desire to talk openly about something which we are forever being told as Brits we don’t like talking about.

Death is a very public secret. In British society generally we go to extraordinary lengths to avoid confronting what we know to be an unavoidable biological fact of life. As an anthropologist I am often asked what it is about western culture that has created this widespread avoidance of the subject, or “taboo”. Actually, every culture in the world has its own rules about what can and cannot be said about death and the dead. We are not alone in regulating death talk, so we can’t just blame our British reserve.

But the cultural rules which currently dominate how death can be spoken about and with whom have been imposed on us by a paternalistic medical bureaucracy. A slow and stifling professionalisation of death and dying has taken place over the last half-century. These matters are now the preserve of the professionals.

Death cafes, as just one cultural initiative, are trying to challenge this professional colonisation. Conversation at the events is intended to be open and free of any imposing agendas. From the few that I have attended I can attest to the varied and wide-ranging topics – everything from living wills and power of attorney to experiences with dead bodies and recalling last words to loved ones. No one was given “advice”’ (nor was it asked for) and no one was made to feel awkward expressing their emotions.

The British Social Attitudes Survey found that, contrary to public perceptions, 70 per cent of us say we feel comfortable talking about death. But the perception that we don’t all too often seems to colour the way health and social care professionals interact with us. It is ironic because research evidence suggests that these professionals are disproportionately represented amongst death café attendees. Perhaps the cafes act as a pressure valve, helping them to let off steam and say things they feel they cannot or should not say at work.

It’s not just health and social care professionals who assume people are reluctant to talk about death. I teach a course on death and dying at the University of Glasgow, and I always begin the course with lots of caveats about how it is an emotional topic and how we might need to think carefully about getting too personal or sharing too much. But I often find that, just like at death cafes, very quickly the students open up and begin to relate the theories we discuss to their own personal experiences. And I have been amazed at what those experiences have been and how death is never as distant or remote as its professionalisation tries to make it.

The popularity of the death café model globally shows that there is an appetite for reclaiming death from the specialists and “getting in touch” with our own mortality. There’s even such a thing as a “death positive” movement! No prizes for guessing that it started in America. I’m not a big fan of the term because I think it spreads the idea that reflecting on our mortality is all sweetness and light. The most naïve thing you can do opening up a conversation about death is to think that there isn’t sadness and tragedy attached. The most paternalistic thing we can do as death educators, or as health and social care professionals, is to recoil from the sadness and the tragedy and not accept it as a feature of everyone’s life and a part of what makes us human.