ONE cold, dark night in January I have a date with the Death Café.

It sounds a little like the opening line of a not very good novel – but driving around the anonymous car park of Shaw Ridge, rain spattering against the windscreen, headlights looming from the night, the moment seems like a story’s beginning.

Stepping into the brightly-lit foyer of the Village Hotel, I scan the various gatherings of people, trying to work out which group might be members of the Death Café. In the end, instinct guides me to half a dozen men and women sitting around a table who somehow look interesting – as though they are not talking about business, or how well their gym session went. And indeed, their topic is much more serious – they have come to talk about death.

Tonight’s members of the Death Café are a mixed group – nine in total, with both men and women. When I introduce myself, a quip or two is made to me about occult goings-on, but swiftly we settle down with coffees and introduce ourselves. The purpose of a Death Café is - simply - for people to gather and discuss death. The object is to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their lives. It has no particular objective or agenda, and is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counselling session.

The idea was developed by Londoner Jon Underwood and counsellor Sue Barsky Reid. Jon worked extensively on projects about death. He died in June 2017 at the age of 44 years old, leaving behind his wife and children, but his mother and sister continue his work.

The Death Café is a social franchise – which means people who sign up to the principles and guides can use the name. The idea has become quickly popular with more than five thousand cafes being set up in 52 countries since 2011.

The facilitator at the Swindon group is Sue Holden, a funeral celebrant and grief recovery specialist. She asks everyone to introduce themselves and what has brought them to the meeting – and then the conversation flows easily and naturally. Tonight the discussion mainly revolves around funerals, burial and cremation – the importance of sharing our wishes, ways to discuss this with relatives, and curious bits of information about the rules and regulations on what can be put in a coffin: mobile phones yes, but the batteries must be removed; favourite biscuits are fine.

We discuss the merits of various types of coffin and I learn that people can be buried on private land – providing certain regulations and requirements are adhered to. Some people even have the ashes of a dear departed one made into jewelry or mixed into the ink of a new tattoo.

Although the topic sounds grim, the conversation is not. The participants are all relaxed and good-humoured. Members had different points of view on religion and the afterlife too – without this being a cause for conflict.

The hour-and-a-half session flew by and the conversation was fascinating – with poignant moments as well as some laughs.

After the meeting, Sue told me she started Swindon’s Death Café in August 2016.

“In the course of my work, I found that people were uneasy talking about anything to do with death and dying – and often could not even say the word. We have so many other words people use instead. The Death Cafes are informal and not morbid. We discuss anything anybody wants to talk about. We hope to make people more comfortable talking about death.

“It doesn’t matter if one or ten other people come along. It’s enough to make it worthwhile,” she said.

  • The Death Café meets on the second Tuesday of every month, at the Village Hotel on Shaw Ridge and the next is on Tuesday, February 13, at 7pm.