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22nd Oct 2019

The Final Curtain: Meet the woman who set up a ‘Death Cafe’

Taryn de Vere

It’s said that Irish people are “great at funerals”, but death is something we tend to shy away from talking about before it happens. In a new series, Her meets the people who want to start a wider conversation about death and loss. Here, we find out the story behind behind Limerick’s Death Cafe…

“The major rule of Death Cafe is there must be cake!”

So says Jennifer Stritch, one of the organisers of Death Cafe Limerick. “Cake and other celebratory foods must be served to remind people that, while it can be frightening, the fact that we are mortal and have finite lives should be celebrated.”

The concept of Death Cafes originally comes from Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. It was taken up by a London-based community worker, the late Jon Underwood, who created the Death Cafe social franchise – now run in over 65 countries.

Running a Death Cafe was a natural progression from the work Jennifer was already doing as a lecturer and a thanatologist, which she explains is, “a very fancy word for someone who has an interest in all aspects of death and how humans experience, mark and manage the losses associated with it”. Jennifer is also the director of the Loss and Grief research group at Limerick Institute of Technology.

At a Death Cafe, she explains, “people gather at a free event in their local community to talk about our experience of death and mortality – which is a very broad subject!”

A Death Cafe in Limerick

Working together with lecturer and artist Sinead Dinneen, Jennifer hosted a first event in November 2015. Since then, the pair have run 10 events in Limerick and Dublin, usually taking place at a cafe or restaurant.

“They are open to anyone 18 and over to attend on a drop-in basis – no charge, stay for as long or as short as you want. People can get a coffee or tea [these are generally alcohol-free evenings] and then fill their plates full of cakes, desserts, sweets and all kinds of goodies… We try to make sure that the food is indulgent and that there is plenty of it, because it helps to underscore the celebration aspect of the night.

“It’s not a support group, or a ‘how-to’ event, and we don’t try to sell a certain belief system or view of the way things “should be”. We try to create a place where people can speak openly, ask questions of themselves and others, share viewpoints and stories, and have a laugh along with deep connection.”

Connecting is an important feature of the experience.

“We talk with the person next to us, or the people we don’t know who are sitting at our table, or in a facilitated way as an entire group. The conversation turns to any aspect of death, dying, disposal, grief, memorialisation and even the possibility of the afterlife. Generally once people start talking the problem becomes getting them to stop!

“The chats have covered what music we’d want at our funerals, what we’d like as our last meals, the burial versus cremation debate, who we’d want to leave certain items to in our wills… There are no limits, and there’s virtually nothing that we can’t talk about in a comfortable and respectful way.

“It turns out that we have a real desire to talk about what death means within the context of being alive – what our fears and desires are, and how we find meaning in our lives in spite of knowing they will be over at some point.”

Talking about death has been considered “almost impolite” in Irish society in the recent past, according to Jennifer. She says that it has become a hidden process for many of us, and to talk about it “would be to draw it on ourselves, or to be seen as maudlin, creepy or ghoulish.”

Jennifer Stritch at a Limerick event

Despite this, Jennifer applauds our approach to funerals.

“The Irish are arguably the best in the world at the public ceremony of the removal, funeral and burial. We come together to show our respect for the person who has died, our support for the grieving and our communal sense of loss in amazing ways.

“I think we’re also becoming more open about acknowledging grief about hidden or challenging losses, such as miscarriage, stillbirth, suicide and death as a result of violent or unusual circumstances.”

“It’s dealing with the anticipation of death, the process of dying, and how we can support ourselves and others after the Month’s mind has taken place and life has allegedly returned to ‘normal’ that perhaps we need to think and talk about a bit more openly.”

Death Cafes attract a mixed bag of people, including, “a Catholic priest who came to see what all the fuss was about at another, and a Methodist minister at another.

“Moms and daughters, groups of friends, people who come on their own because they were curious, gangs of college students, senior citizens, people who want to be able to say ‘I’ve been to a Death Cafe’… It’s a very broad church and that’s how we like it.”

A Death Cafe might seem like an unusual place to meet someone romantically, but Jennifer says they once had a couple who were on their first date. “The variety makes the chemistry of the evening absolutely amazing.”

The next Death Cafe is on October 25 at Jack Monday’s Cafe in Limerick as part of the 2019 Samhain Festival. Tickets are free but must be booked in advance from Eventbrite. More details can be found on the Facebook page Death Cafe Limerick.