SHANGHAI — In 2019, while Feng Qing was traveling abroad, her beloved grandmother unexpectedly died. Feng couldn’t forgive herself for missing the last opportunity to spend time with the woman who had raised her. “I was crying all day,” she says.
But Feng had nowhere to turn with her grief. Her parents certainly didn’t want to talk. As in so many Chinese families, there’d always been a taboo on the topic. “At home, I’m not even allowed to use expressions like ‘dead tired’ or ‘so happy I could die’ because it’s ominous,” the 25-year-old salesperson tells Sixth Tone.
A few weeks later, a friend told Feng about an event in Shanghai where people, usually about 20, gather to share their thoughts and experiences about death over coffee and cake. She signed up.
“I wasn’t the only one who cried after pouring out my feelings about my grandma’s death,” Feng says. The host and other participants gave her advice on how to process her loss. One suggested she could write down memories of her grandmother and keep them in a jar. “I’m still doing that until today,” she says.
Such get-togethers, allowing participants to talk in a comfortable atmosphere about the inevitable end, are called “death cafés.” The movement was founded in 2011 by Jon Underwood, a British man, who organized the first such event at his home. Since then, death cafés have been held in 76 countries.
Death cafés were popularized in China by Hand in Hand, a nonprofit providing hospice support to cancer patients, which hosted its first café about seven years ago in Shanghai. Seeing it as an effective, low-cost way to educate people about death, Hand in Hand in 2019 began organizing training sessions for hosts, hoping to take the format nationwide.
With the outbreak of COVID-19 putting death at the front of everyone’s minds, interest has been high. So far, 563 hosts have held nearly 500 death cafés in 39 cities across the country, with about 8,000 participants.
Gao Jing, an art and advertising freelancer, was feeling a bit bored last year, stuck at home in Shenzhen, southern China, when she was chatting online to someone about Hand in Hand’s death cafés. As soon as the situation allowed, Gao invited an experienced host to set up a gathering in Shenzhen, and noticed how it spoke to an unmet need. “Everyone came with curiosity,” she says. “After all, death is something that is rarely mentioned in China.”
After attending a training in September, Gao has organized her own death cafés at least once a month. Tickets go fast. “The pandemic has made people think,” she says. “I’ve found that people are more genuine, and more willing to talk about death.”
Twice, venue operators suggested Gao use a different title for her event, saying “death” was too heavy a topic. To her, it only showed how necessary it is to talk about dying more. “We name it ‘death café’ because we don’t want people to think of death as a heavy thing to talk about,” Gao says. “If it’s normal for us to attend an investment salon, then it should be normal to attend a death café.”
Wu Jing, a hospice caregiver volunteer for Hand in Hand in Shanghai, has also begun hosting death cafés since last year. Throughout the pandemic, hospitals have been shutting their doors to volunteers like Wu, leaving her looking for other ways to educate people about death. Since July, she has hosted a dozen cafés.
Participants complete an activity during a training course held by Hand in Hand. From Ace Youth
Breaking with international death café guidelines that call for free entry or voluntary donations, hosts in China, like Wu and Gao, set a ticket price for their events. The hesitancy many people still have to talk about death means they need to rent a fully private place, rather than just finding a quiet corner somewhere. Usually, Chinese hosts charge 44 yuan ($6.70), a near-homonym for “death is death,” reflecting the frank nature of the discussion participants can expect.
Although Shanghai was never badly hit by COVID-19 — since early 2020, the city has recorded just 371 local symptomatic transmissions — the pandemic is still a recurring topic at Wu’s death cafés. She recalls one participant telling the story of how her father, who had terminal cancer, couldn’t get treatment due to hospitals’ precautionary measures, and died a couple of months later. “At that time, the families of patients with terminal cancer couldn’t enter the ward, and the patients couldn’t receive chemotherapy,” Wu says. “They were all miserable.”
Hu Zhihui, a teacher at Fudan University’s School of Marxism who began giving classes on life in 2005, tells Sixth Tone that more people are aware of end-of-life education, in part because hospice care is becoming increasingly common. He believes death cafés are a good tool to communicate such lessons to a wider group of people, but that they still don’t reach the people who need them most. “People who don’t want to talk still don’t talk or attend the event,” he says.
China’s death cafés so far seem to have only been successful in larger cities. Hand in Hand’s co-founder Huang Weiping says hosts in less economically developed regions report lower attendance. “I told them one is also a success, and if no one comes, then being quiet with yourself for a couple of hours is still a success,” Huang, 52, says.
Left: A host leads an activity held by Hand in Hand; Right: A photo of Huang Weiping. Courtesy of Hand in Hand
They are also mostly attended by younger people and women. While older generations are still loath to broach the subject of dying, the taboo is fading among their children. China Will Registration Center said last month that it had received nearly 70,000 digital wills in 2020, with people under 30 accounting for over two-thirds of them.
Ma Jiayi, a Hand in Hand employee, in November took part in an online death café organized by a hospice provider in the U.K. In contrast to events in China, some participants were elderly. “One was dying and said he wouldn’t make it to Christmas,” she tells Sixth Tone. “I feel emotional that they can really reach people who are dying, which is still very difficult in China.”
Outside China, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on death cafés as well. Kris D’Aout, a senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool, U.K., who hosts such events in the city, believes death being in the newspapers every day makes it easier to talk about it. Also, lockdowns put people in a reflective mood. “There’s more time to think,” he says.
D’Aout used to host the events in a pub, but now he has turned to the online meeting app Zoom. Some people attend to share stories, some come because they have a job that’s related to death, and others join death cafés with their terminally ill children. He also had a participant from China who lives in the U.K. “Talking about death is not a taboo for her, but she said in her culture, it’s very uncommon to talk about it,” says D’Aout.
Before D’Aout’s father died, they talked about everything from the will to the music to be played at the funeral. “If we make it a normal subject throughout life, then when our time is there, it will be less of a traumatic experience,” he says. “For us, it was easier to grieve because we knew everything went the way he wanted.”
Nearly two years after attending the death café, Feng, who lost her grandmother, has recommended the event to a few of her close friends. “People don’t think about death until our loved ones are reaching the end of their lives,” she says. “But at that time, it’s too late. I’ve realized that we need to think about and understand death when everyone is still healthy and alive.”
Additional reporting: Chen Congcong; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: People take part in an activity held by Hand in Hand in Chengdu, Sichuan province, 2019. Courtesy of Hand in Hand)