End-of-life doulas start ‘death café’ in Finsbury Park

Liz Wong (L) and Caroline Dent (R) at the death caf� at Blighty Coffee

Liz Wong (L) and Caroline Dent (R) at the death caf� at Blighty Coffee - Credit: Archant

A woman in her twenties peers nervously around a café door in Finsbury Park.

“Life drawing or death café?” asks the barista.

“Death,” she answers, before being directed to a cluster of chairs and tables in the corner.

There, she joins a group of about 20 of us who have all come for the same purpose: to talk about mortality over a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

A slightly depressing way to spend a Thursday evening you might think, but co-organiser Caroline Dent, of Upper Tollington Park, assures me that the atmosphere is in fact very lively.

“It’s hard to get people to stop talking,” says Ms Dent, 57. “It’s like when you get people talking about sex – it has the same kind of frisson.”

Taken from the Swiss model Café Mortel, started by the sociologist Bernard Crettaz, the concept was brought to the UK by Jon Underwood in 2011. Since then several death cafés have popped up around the country and there are even plans to open the first physical death café in the capital.

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Ms Dent, who also works as an artist, first brought the event to Blighty Coffee on Blackstock Road one month ago after helping organise another death café in Hampstead.

She is assisted by personal trainer Elizabeth Wong, 36. Both have trained to be end-of-life doulas, assistants who help people in the final stages of their lives at home.

“There’s no agenda,” explains Ms Dent. “We split into small groups and take it in turns to say why we are here which then evolves into a conversation. Then we come back together as a big group.”

The café, she says, should not be regarded as a therapy session.

“It’s not therapy or advice. We’re creating a space where people can talk about a subject that no one talks about. We’re just encouraging people to talk about something that’s going to happen to all of us.”

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a positive influence on participants, she says.

“Anything you address and look at consciously instead of pushing away is going to be a healthy and healing thing. The more you push fears away the more they fester in our consciousness.”

“Last time we did it people were so grateful,” remarks Miss Wong. “I forgot how helpful it is for people and what it actually means to them.”

The event attracts people from all walks of life, each with their own reason for being there. Previous participants range from a man in his 80s planning his legacy to teenagers going through bereavements and medical students.

Ms Dent’s fascination with death started as a child when she developed a phobia of death.

“I started obsessing about death when I was a child and started reading about it when I was in my 20s,” says Ms Dent. “If you’re frightened of death it can be very hard to come to terms with.

“Death is a great mystery and there is no greater mystery. So for me it’s a mystery why people don’t obsess about it.”

When she attended her first death café in Hampstead two years ago she was surprised by what she found.

“I expected a load of Goths with black nail polish and it was totally the opposite,” she says.

Miss Wong, of Green Lanes, trained as a death doula after the death of a close friend.

“I didn’t realise that was why at the time,” she says. “It was only through the course when you have to look at your own motivations that it made me realise I want to do this because it gives me some level of control when that time comes.”

Participants at my table tonight include a psychotherapist and an art student. Despite the initial awkwardness (mainly stemming from the fact that there was a journalist at the table), conversation flows easily with topics ranging from life after to death to overcoming death phobias.

Despite myself, I found myself increasingly caught up in the conversation and could relate to a lot of the things being said. After all, death is something we will all have to face sooner or later.

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