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What to Expect at a Death Cafe

by Michelle Polacinski

A Death Cafe is where a group of people, usually strangers, get together to eat cake, drink tea, and discuss death. The group has no agenda, objectives, or themes and it is a discussion group, not a grief counseling session. The objective of a Death Cafe is to "increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives."

Death Cafes are held all over the world, with over 15,000 Death Cafes held since 2011, in 83 countries. The Death Cafe model was developed by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid, based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz. Crettaz was a Swiss professor who wondered about the rites and customs that accompany death in society. He organized the first "Death Cafe," then called a "CafeĢ Mortal" in 1999. Crettaz died this past November at the age of 84.

In order to use the Death Cafe and model, we follow a certain set of rules which keep participants safe and comfortable. The main rules are as follows:

  1. Death Cafes are always offered on a non-profit basis
  2. In an accessible, respectful, and confidential space
  3. With no intention or agenda to lead people towards any conclusion
  4. Alongside refreshments such as tea and cake
  5. Death Cafes are not a grief counseling or therapy group.

Although Death Cafes tend to facilitate a healthy, casual group discussion, death is quitea heavy subject. That said, we always have tissues available and we always allow for feelings to come up, as well as a certain level of discomfort and any sudden departures. However, we aim to make each Death Cafe at the co-op a safe and comfortable environment.

It is very important to note that Death Cafes are not therapy or grief counseling support groups. Neither facilitators nor participants are expected to play the role of mental health counselors, and so “playing therapist” is not appropriate for a Death Cafe conversation.That said, we ask that personal experience be brought in only in relation to the topic discussed by the group and that it is appropriate for a casual discussion setting.

Certain topics you can expect to discuss include what happens to your body after you die, rituals, end of life care, wills, obituaries, advanced directives, vigils, amongst other topics. Our most popular topics at the co-op Death Cafes include green burials, how to improve the system surrounding death and dying, as well as the importance of community in regards to death and dying.

You can find a Death Cafe local to you through the main website at We host regular Death Cafes at the co-op on the last Monday of every month. Albany Death Cafe also hosts Death Cafes at random. You can find information for their meetings on their Facebook page or through their newsletter by emailing

If you have recently experienced a loss and need or desire grief counseling, Community Hospice offers free services. You can contact Community Hospice at 518.724.0200.

Michelle Polacinski is a community builder, filmmaker, INELDA-trained death doula, and experienced herbalist based in Troy, NY. 

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