Susan Holden, 62, will start Swindon’s first 'death café' at 7pm tomorrow in the Dojo Café at Crowood House, Gypsy Lane.

Death cafés, which began in 2011 and are held worldwide, allow people to gather and talk about a taboo subject in a supportive environment. Susan, a grief recovery specialist and civil funeral celebrant, lives in Washpool and has two grown-up daughters.

WHAT will people find at a death café?

“They’ll find a café environment which is relaxed, informal and friendly, and they’ll find people having conversation,” said Susan Holden.

“But it’s a conversation about death and dying.

“It might be humorous, it might be sad, it might be philosophical, it might be educational. It’s really open-ended. There’s no set agenda, no theme, no speakers, no desire to get a point over.”

Death cafés can indeed be educational, but not in a conventional way.

“It’s not a learning situation where people would come to learn about death and dying, but the fact that you’re talking means you can pick up things you didn’t know. So in that sense it’s educational.

“We can impart some firm facts. A lot of the reason why people don’t like to talk about death and dying is fear, and we can perhaps allay some of those fears.

“Death and dying is the elephant in the room. It’s the thing that people know is going to happen but they don’t want to talk about it. There are various superstitions around it, such as: ‘If you talk about it, it will happen.’ There are other myths, such as if you have your ashes given back they’re not really yours; they just put everybody in the cremator and burn them together and you just get a scoop full of anybody’s. That is just not true.”

Death cafés attract a broad cross-section of society.

Some are simply curious while others have life-limiting medical issues or are close to somebody who has. There are people who want advice on getting affairs in order and forward thinkers who want to minimise their loved ones’ trauma when the time comes 20, 30 or more years hence.

There is advice from professionals on anything from grief to funeral arrangements, although there are no sales pitches.

Susan’s journey to her role as grief recovery specialist, civil funeral celebrant and now death café-organiser was long and, at times, very arduous.

Originally from Kampala, Uganda, where her parents were in the old colonial civil service, she spent much of her early life in Bristol after the family relocated.

Susan was a sporty child with special talent in javelin and hockey – she represented her country in the latter.

She became a PE teacher and worked in Bath, and then switched to a sales career. Married to an RAF member, she became pregnant.

“I was just going on maternity leave and unfortunately I lost my baby," she says.

"That was a turning point. I don’t know why – nobody knows why. She died within me and I had to go through a normal birth.

“That was my first real touch with loss and grief. I’d given up a successful career to be in the mum club and the baby club and I wasn’t going to be in it.

"That was a huge shock and a big life-changer as well.”

Susan had her two other daughters, and when they settled in secondary school she started what turned out to be a successful picture framing business with a showroom in Cricklade and a workshop in Highworth. Entirely self-taught, she became a commended framer with the Fine Art Trade Guild.

One day in 2011 she came home from work one day and was told by her husband that he didn’t want to be with her anymore. It was a complete surprise.

“I was about to sail off into the sunset with him and now I was going to have to start again. I felt like a student, I had to find a home, I had to find my own way in life.”

In the period that followed, Susan entered a process of reflection. She eventually sold the business. In addressing her life and thinking about what mattered, she realised she had never addressed her grief at the loss of her first child.

In doing so Susan came to understand more about grief and wanted to help others. She trained as a grief recovery specialist with an organisation called The Grief Recovery Method.

Susan’s work brought her into contact with a funeral celebrant, and Susan herself became inspired. She has worked in grief recovery for about 18 months and has been a celebrant since April.

“At my first service I was standing at the front of the crematorium behind the lectern. I looked up at everybody and they were just full of expectation and – not fear, exactly – a kind of pleading. ‘Please get us through this. Look after me.’

"I looked around and thought I was probably as scared as they were, but I felt a real calmness and control. I thought: ‘It’s okay, I’ve got you. I can do this for you.’

“Why do I love it? It’s because I know I can do something to help them through that time.

“I’m doing this work because I feel called to do it and driven to do it and I have life’s experiences to fall back on. I’m used to talking with people who are grieving and I’ve faced death, which is why I’m not afraid to talk about it.

“I feel there are not a lot of people who would want to do this sort of work, and so I have a role to fill.

“The death café? I find it quite amusing to see people’s reactions. I don’t mind if it’s not a positive reaction because I’m not looking for friendship or commendations through it.

“I’m just looking to do a job that needs doing, that perhaps nobody else wants to do, and might help some people.”

Further information about the death café at Dojo can be found at, and Susan herself has a Facebook presence.