Death and cake: Gathering to help people contemplate end of life


Tea, cake and conversations about dying. That’s the idea behind death cafes, where strangers meet and tackle a taboo subject: mortality.

Tiffany Fox, who is hosting a death cafe 2-4 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito in Del Mar, said that like many, she always found it difficult to talk about death with friends and family.

“If you try to bring up death, people say you’re morbid, or they say you’re weird and they change the subject,” said Fox, an Encinitas resident. “And I never quite understood that. Because it’s the elephant in the room. We’re all going to die.”

The upcoming event is free. There are no objectives, agendas or ideas pushed on anyone at death cafes, a worldwide movement that started in London in 2011. The meetings don’t provide grief counseling, but rather kickstart discussions to ease anxiety about shuffling off this mortal coil. Conversations vary from what happens after we die to having your estate in order.

And while it may seem odd, Fox said many find death cafes life-affirming. That proved true for her, a breast cancer survivor who said contemplating her mortality was a key part of the healing process.

“Working through some of that discomfort associated with death can bring healing and a sense of peace,” she said. Fox added that staring mortality in the face was liberating, a way of regaining control and hope.

After her breast cancer diagnosis, Fox dove into death research. That included reading the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and what other religious texts have to say about life after death. When Fox heard about a death cafe in Carlsbad, she knew she had to go.

During the cafe, a woman discussed a horrific accident. It was the first time Fox had heard someone speak so frankly about the topic.

“You hear media reports of all these horrible things happening, but it seems so far removed,” Fox said. “It was very visceral, very real.”

She also listened to a person talk about an out-of-body experience, and another spoke on how psychedelic drugs changed their perspective on death. On the flip side, some were more focused on the practical matter of funeral planning.

“It was the most profound conversation I’ve ever had, and with total strangers. That’s what I love about it. Here we are, people from all walks of life, freely talking about something that has a stigma around it.”

And the Carlsbad death cafe conversation wasn’t entirely heavy.

“I expected it to be sad and somber, but there was so much laughter,” Fox said. “And I think that comes from the relief people feel, to finally have a chance to talk about this.”

Fox wanted others to share in the experience, so she decided to host her first death cafe a year ago, which drew nearly 50 people. Attendees are split into groups, and from there, they can draw from conversation prompts if needed.

A sample of the conversation-starters: “If you could determine the age you would want to die, what would it be and why?” and “What does it mean to you not to delay happiness and to live every day as though it were your last?” as well as “When you are dying, what will you regret?”

Who goes to death cafes? Fox said it ranges, but three categories of people are generally well-represented: those looking for deeper conversations, hospice workers and the intellectually curious.

“Maybe one or two come for the cake,” she jokingly said, noting that dessert is a staple of death cafes, since it brings a little sweetness to a dark topic.

Those looking to mull over death can’t always go to family, Fox said.

“With family, there’s a lot wrapped up in the idea of loss. What happens to your belongings, who’s going to provide care — all kinds of family dynamics go into that and it becomes complicated really quickly.”

Most attendees are in their mid-50s, but Fox encouraged young people to go.

“Think about how much wisdom you’re surrounded by at an event like this,” she said. “There’s much to learn from.”

Karen Van Dyke, who started San Diego’s first death cafe in May 2013, said there are now 26 death cafe hosts around the county. She attributes this growth to death cafes playing a valuable role. While there’s grief support and end-of-life planning meetings, there’s also a desire to toss around ideas related to death and philosophy.

“People shouldn’t be so scared of death, and I think more are realizing that,” Van Dyke said.

Fox agreed. In part because of death cafe, she said discussing death is becoming more accepted, and not just over cake and tea, but across society.

“Death cafe, in my opinion, is one of those things — like jury duty, or the birth of a child or an amazing rainbow — that everyone should experience. Even if not for you, I encourage people to contemplate death in their own way.”

Those who can’t attend the upcoming event can find additional death cafes at