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First for Belfast as death cafe serves tea, cake and discussions on mortality

By Stephanie Bell

Published 07/04/2016

It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but this Sunday Northern Ireland will host its first death cafe.

The concept, which is popular worldwide, sees people invited to come along and talk about the taboo subject of death over a cuppa and cake.

It has been organised by two local writers, who insist that the idea is not as morbid as it sounds.

Therese Kieran and Lucy Beevor, both mums-of-three who met on a creative writing course in Belfast, already have 30 people signed up to take part in the event at The Pantry in the city's Crescent Arts Centre.

They insisted that far from being a gloomy two hours, a death cafe aims to help people make the most of their lives by increasing awareness that it will one day come to an end.

The events are not for profit and aim to allow people to feel relaxed about discussing death while enjoying tea and coffee in a confidential space.

There have been more than 2,900 held globally.

The women pointed out that the cafe was not "a bereavement or counselling service".

Rather, it offers everyone the chance to share their thoughts in a set timescale, something Lucy said can help battle the fear of the subject.

"There's no denying this has become a topic we avoid talking about," she explained.

"A death cafe offers a safe space to talk about death, and we are really looking forward to hearing what guests at this inaugural Belfast death cafe want to discuss.

"While death will be the predominant theme of this event, there is no set direction for the discussion and no right or wrong answers from those attending. This is simply about opening up a conversation."

Co-orgainser Therese added: "On Sunday we will be a group of ordinary individuals united by a wish to discuss mortality.

"Talking about death doesn't have to be morbid. In fact, conversations about death can be incredibly life-affirming, humorous and inspiring."

Death cafes started in Switzerland in 2004 when sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz organised the first one in Neuchatel with the aim of breaking the "tyrannical secrecy" surrounding the topic of death.

His Cafe Mortel concept inspired Jon Underwood's Death Cafe, which began in London in 2011, holding events in diverse venues including yurts, private houses and cafes.

It is now a global phenomenon, and Ireland recently got in on the act with a death cafe in Dublin that attracted 10 people, and another in Limerick that drew in 100.

Lucy, who writes poetry and short stories, and Therese, who is also a poet, discovered a mutual fascination with death in literature on a creative writing course.

As an experiment, they started emailing each other every week, discussing the topic of death. This in turn led to the setting up of an archive of works that deals with the issue.

They also successfully applied to the Arts Council for funding for a series of workshops on death in literature.

A death cafe seemed a natural progression for them. "Lucy and I realised we had a shared mutual interest in the subject of death as a theme," said Therese. "It is a big theme in literature.

"We set up a death box and started to email each other weekly to explore the subject.

"Then we set up a virtual repository of any content we found inspired by death, such as songs and books and poetry. Then we went into journalism and factual books. We currently have around 70 pieces of work that we have exchanged and talked about.

"We then decided to hold a series of workshops to open up the conversation to other people, which we hope will culminate in an exhibition in September."

A death cafe is something that the pair decided to operate as a side-project.

Therese insisted the experience aimed to be life-affirming for those who attend. "Since we started the project we have been looking at death in all its forms, not just as a distressing end-of-life thing but in a variety of contexts," she said.

"One would be the transgender experience, which is a death of sorts, when someone decides they are no longer going to be the person they were born as.

"It all sounds a bit morbid, but that is definitely not our agenda as we will be looking for life-affirming messages out of it.

"We are simply asking people to come along and have a cup of tea and a piece of cake and talk about death in an atmosphere which will be very gentle and easygoing."

Anyone who thinks they would like to go along this week can expect to feel no pressure to contribute. If they do take part in the discussions, anything said will be in confidence.

Lucy (44), who is from London and moved to Belfast two years ago when her husband Jorge secured a post here with a large multi-national company, said her fascination with death developed when she turned 40.

She also told how she had no idea what to expect from the people of Northern Ireland, but if interest in the death cafe is high, then others will be encouraged to hold further events.

"I think, for me, waking up on the other side of 40, I suddenly realised my life was that much shorter than it had been," she said. "For me, thinking about death and the end of life helps frame a lot of my decisions day-to-day.

"Being from London, I knew about the model there of death cafes, although I had never been to one.

"I think people find it difficult to talk about death to family and friends.

"A death cafe offers the opportunity to discuss it with strangers, which can be easier.

"We are providing people with a space they can come to talk about it and share their own experience and open a door, which if they want to they can keep open in their own way.

"We have no idea whether it will be a one-off or if people will have an appetite for more. If we feel there is a really strong interest in it, then we will encourage others to run them.

"We will be talking about our thoughts, experiences and other matters associated with death. It genuinely is not morbid, it is just about people finding the space to talk about a subject they are interested in."

Northern Ireland's first death cafe will open on Sunday from 2-4pm at The Pantry at Crescent Arts Centre in south Belfast.

For more information got to www.deathcafe.com or email Lucy and Therese at deathboxbelfast@yahoo.co.uk

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