On Sunday 25 June Jon Underwood, founder of Death Cafe, tragically died aged 44. On Wednesday last week Louise Winter, who I had met through the Death Cafes she organised in London, sent me an email asking if I would help carry Jon’s coffin on Thursday morning. The funeral, for family and close friends, was to be held later that day, but the idea was to have people who were involved in various sides of Jon’s life carry in the coffin in the morning. I would be there as a supporter of Death Cafe. I was a little taken aback about being asked, lots of thoughts and emotions went through my mind, but I trust Louise and wrote back, of course. And so early Thursday morning I helped to carry Jon’s coffin into the Jamyang Buddhist Centre in Lambeth.
I attended my first Death Cafe in 2014 and have attended quite a few since. I’ve attended them in places from the nondescript (but perfectly pleasant) Catford Costa to the far from nondescript Asylum Chapel in Peckham. I’ve attended Death Cafes where there’s only been four people (including me), and Death Cafes where there has been close on to a hundred – the conversations were as interesting and engaging in both instances. At these Death Cafes we discussed death (obviously), subjects connected to death, but subjects you might not have thought of connected to a Death Cafe also came up.
I reflected on all this Wednesday evening. I also thought about what I’d gained through the existence of Death Cafe: the places and venues I’d discovered; the people I’d met; and when Anna and Louise, in their announcement of Jon’s death, wrote of Jon passionately believing ‘that in order to fully embrace life and living, one must also embrace death and dying’, I recognised this as something I’d learnt was true.
On Thursday, after helping to carry the coffin, and after a cup of tea and a chat with Louise and the others in the beautiful and serene gardens in Jamyang, I made my way through Lambeth towards Victoria; still feeling honoured to have been asked to carry the coffin but still feeling slightly unworthy of that honour. To combat this feeling I thought about ways in which I might be able to continue, even in some small way, what Jon had begun.
One way was to write this post. For I found being asked to carry Jon’s coffin had allowed me to talk about my involvement in Death Cafe to people who I might not have had the chance to before (explaining to a friend at work why I wanted the morning off comes to mind). This post then is in recognition and a continuation of that.
Another way, I thought, would be to become a little more involved with Death Cafe, more engaged with the current conversations surrounding death and dying, then I feel I have been recently. For example, those books Jon recommended as part of his talk at Life. Death. Whatever. in October last year, perhaps now it’s time to read them. And perhaps I might organise my own Death Cafe? These are all small gestures yes, but I feel if I take anything away from the week just gone it’s small gestures matter.
And while we’re on the subject of gestures there has been a crowdfunding campaign set-up to support Jon’s family. Donate if you can.
Talk about death.