Catching Your Death

In 1973 I went to a Dustin Hoffman double bill at the Cannon cinema in Folkestone. The Graduate was a 15 certificate and Straw Dogs was today’s equivalent of 18+ (R/Restricted Viewing). Nobody had IDs back then and my friend and I must have looked older than our 14 years. Straw Dogs was subsequently banned from video for 20 years as a result of its violent content, which included two rape scenes. I credit my current inability to watch physical and sexual on-screen violence to the distress I experienced after seeing Straw Dogs. Sam Peckinpah’s film was re-made in 2011 and, unlike its predecessor, it bombed at the box office.

I recognise that my inability to de-sensitize myself to on-screen violence means that I often miss out on well-acted, well-written drama. I am, nonetheless, curious as to why death, and particularly violent death, is such an intrinsic part of mainstream entertainment. Why is explicit cruelty so compelling? What purpose does it serve?

Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross, the Swiss-American psychiatrist who pioneered the study of death and dying in the 1960s wrote: Perhaps the biggest obstacle anyone faces in the effort to understand death is that it’s impossible for the unconscious mind to imagine an end to its own life. The only aspect it can understand is a sudden, frightening interruption of life, a tragic killing, a murder, one of several gruesome diseases. In other words –  horrible pain.

So it’s a distancing technique. But if it exists everywhere, all the time, then are we not at risk of being anesthetized to death? Most of us, of course, will not die as a result of murder, suicide or a tragic accident. Most of us will die slowly, over a long or a short period of time, in a care home, in a hospital or in hospice. We are uncomfortable with the inevitability of ordinary death, which is so often concealed, sanitized and managed by a third party.

On March 23rd, 2004, the Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, launched the first Cafe mortel (or Death Cafe  as it is known outside Switzerland) at the Restaurant du Theatre du Passage in Neuchatel. His goal was to draw death out of the shadows; he wanted people to talk freely about death, not behind closed doors, but in a social space that was accessible to all. Anyone could be part of the conversation, either through joining the group (although no one is required to share or even speak at a Death Cafe), or through ‘eavesdropping’.

Death is not private or confidential. It is a given. It is the one thing we all have in common. By talking about death and dying, you prepare yourself a little for your own death, so you’re not terrified of it, said Crettaz in an interview with Swiss Public Radio. Traditionally the Cafes mortels took place in restaurants and bistros where people gathered to eat, drink and talk. Wine and cheese were provided and no financial donations were accepted. There are already too many issues surrounding money and death, he said.

Bernard Crettaz was born in 1938 in Vissoie in the val d’Anniviers. The dark-stained chalets and the ancient chapels in this remote part of Switzerland are framed by a mountain range known as La Grande Couronne – The Great Crown. In these communities there are clear rituals around death and dying. At a young age, Bernard’s mother taught him how to dress the house in mourning using sacred objects from her tiroir du mort, or ‘death drawer’. His father took him to the cellar and showed him the oak barrels of wine and the aging cheese destined to be served at their funerals alongside fresh bread, baked in the village oven. In previous generations, the funeral wine and cheese were laid down at the same time as the couple planned their wedding celebrations. The vine, the cow and the field are symbols of our relationship with the earth, explained Crettaz.

Funerals are public events, a communal act of kinship among mourners and the bereaved. Death is both serious and extremely commonplace.

In 1979, at the age of 41, Crettaz received his doctorate in sociology from the University of Geneva, where he was a lecturer. Together with his wife, the anthropologist Yvonne Preiswerk, he founded an organisation that studied funeral rites and customs. When Preiswerk died in 1999, Crettaz took early retirement and returned to Vissoie where he devoted himself to writing. Five years later, he launched the Cafes Mortels, which he convened until 2010.

The Death Cafes followed in 2011 (hot drinks and cake have replaced wine and cheese). They now exist in 83 countries. Although there is a convenor, the discussions are group-led and there is no agenda, no objective and no judgement. The Death Cafe provides an accessible, respectful and confidential space without intention to lead participants to any conclusion, product or course of action. They are not grief or counselling sessions. The one I went to earlier this year was held in a public library. We talked about suicide and inheritance. The demographic was broad – from funeral director to pagan.

There is no right or wrong to dying, just a time, a place and a readiness. The Irish writer, Kevin Toolis, compares death to a marathon that you know you will have to run at some point. It’s compulsory and you can’t get out of it.  One day, without warning, the bell will toll and you will have to drop everything and go. Instead of pretending it isn’t going to happen, Toolis  suggests we get a little practice in beforehand, even if it’s just a few laps around the local park.

This is what Bernard Crettaz and the Cafes Mortels, sought to achieve. He wanted to help people better manage their grief and better face their death, because Death, he said, is a lesson in life.


Bernard Crettaz born May 29th 1938 died November 28th 2022

Cafes mortels: Sortir la mort du silence, by Bernard Crettaz, 2010 Editions Labor et Fides.

My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis, 2017, W+N