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Everyone Dies. This Bay Area ‘Death Cafe’ Hopes To Normalize Life’s Most Taboo Topic

Written by Julie ZigorisVideo by Jesse RogalaPublished Mar. 15, 2023 • 7:00am

The rules of a Death Cafe are simple. You gather, with refreshments, and talk about life’s most taboo topic. 

It’s not about counseling, grieving, giving advice or pushing products. It’s an open forum where a range of ages gather—with the results being some of the most honest and raw conversations possible. 

Complete strangers narrate stories of family suicides and pervasive cancers. They also share movie recommendations and travel tips. There can be tears; there’s always laughter. The conversations, it seems, are not only about death but also about life—how to live it and what makes a good one. 

Newcomers and returning participants meet once a month at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Marin County to attend a Death Cafe. | Video by Jesse Rogala & Mike Kuba

“We should be talking about death more,” said Karen Murray, an end-of-life doula at a recent Death Cafe at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Marin County. Murray organizes the Death Cafe along with Anthea Grimason. “[Because] when the time comes, it’s a foreign thing for us,” Murray said.  

There’s clearly a thirst to talk about our own mortality, one that surged in the wake of the pandemic. The need is further increased by our own inability to address the topic, as some Death Cafe participants speculate. 

“It’s our whole Western civilization that’s not able to deal with death,” one participant said. "Being afraid of death is like being afraid of life,” observed another. 

The Birth of the Death Cafe

British founder Jon Underwood hosted the first Death Cafe at his home in London in September 2011 with the help of his mother, psychotherapist Sue Barsky Reid. The event went so well that they decided to hold another event—and then many more after that.

After releasing a guide for others to run their own Death Cafes in 2012, the movement spread rapidly—there have been over 15,000 Death Cafes in 83 countries at last count. 

Events have been held in locations ranging from funky cafes to cemeteries to a yurt.

Shortly before Underwood passed away suddenly in 2017 at 44 years old, he expressed hopes of building a permanent brick-and-mortar Death Cafe in London. To date, that still hasn’t happened.

Talking Death in Marin County

Many of the people at the Tiburon Death Cafe have death-adjacent professions: nurse, doctor, a death doula, a person who answers phone for suicide prevention, a person who volunteers for End of Life Choices. They’re not sick or dying, but their proximity to people who are has given them a unique vantage point. 

But there’s also a man whose father survived the Holocaust, and a couple in their 20s who have already had a parent die. Acknowledging the variety of people who have gathered makes you realize the universality of death. It’s perhaps the one aspect of life we all share. 

Participants in Tiburon's Death Cafe discuss mortality over cookies and tea on March 2, 2023. | Video by Jesse Rogala & Mike Kuba

Despite being held in a church, there’s no religious component of the Tiburon Death Cafe. It's simply a space to host, thanks to Westminster Events, a learning center that welcomes artists and authors and offers community programs on everything ranging from incarceration to the war in Ukraine. 

Discussing death dispels the fear surrounding it and even allows some to recognize its beauty. 

One participant lovingly shared the magic of the moment when a patient in palliative care at UCSF died at home. “We created a beautiful circle of women around him, and it was something he needed in his life,” she said. “We mothered him to the end, so that was his good death.” 

“You will be given a life,” participant Mary said. “You’ll be given lessons, and lessons will be repeated until they are learned.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the location of a patient’s death. The patient was in palliative care at UCSF but he died at home, not at UCSF.

Julie Zigoris can be reached at jzigoris@sfstandard.com


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