Almost six years ago, in September 2011, Jon Underwood held his very first “death cafe” in the basement of his home in east London. He put out tea and cake, and had people gather to talk about death, mortality and the finitude of life.
That first cafe, inspired by the ideas of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who developed the concept of “cafe mortels,” has since spawned a worldwide movement. Thousands of death cafes have been held in over 50 countries, including the United States. Other than to talk about death, the cafes had no specific agenda. Anyone could join, whether or not they were religious, superstitious or spiritual.
Then, on June 27, Underwood died suddenly from an undiagnosed leukemia. He was 44.
The abruptness of his death came as a huge shock, especially to his closest family. But Underwood’s philosophy of life and death is also a strange source of comfort at this devastating time, said his sister Jools Barsky.
“There is a bizarre irony about dealing with the sudden death of my brother who devoted his life to raising our awareness about the fact [that] life is short and unpredictable,” Barsky wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “Whilst in some ways the irony is unimaginably horrible, in others it is strangely helpful.”
“Jon was uniquely and unusually aware that life is short and appreciated his life fully, reflecting on this through daily practice,” wrote Donna Molloy, Underwood’s widow, in a blog post shortly after his death.
“He lived every day reflecting very consciously on the fact that none of us know how long we have and [focused] completely on being present in, and making the most of every minute,” Molloy added.
Underwood, who was constantly searching for spiritual meaning, was keen to instill his philosophy of life and death in his family.
“He would often say ‘well Jools, you never know, you could be dead tomorrow!’ ” Barsky told The Post. She added that Underwood “pushed me very hard, sometimes what felt like too hard, to really take advantage of every opportunity and experience.”
In the face of this “indescribable” shock and grief, Barksy said, “there is a strange comfort in knowing that he would have been able to handle it.”
Barsky pointed to a 2013 interview in which Underwood was asked whether people were more afraid of their own death or the death of loved ones.
Underwood replied that the death of his wife and children scare him the most. “But that’s not to say that I’m not scared of dying — I am!” he added. “But doing this work has given me confidence that whatever happens I will respond with openness and resilience. I know I will cope.”
“Understanding that he felt like this is really useful for us too right now!” Barsky said.
Underwood’s funeral was held Thursday, July 6, at the Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London, where he had worked as a manager since 2000.
The death of Underwood will not spell the end of Death Cafe. As per Underwood’s request, his sister and his mother, Sue Barsky Reid, will continue his work on the Death Cafe movement. Barsky emphasized that however the movement proceeds, it must be “very carefully considered and approached in a thoughtful way.”
“This must be a way that Jon would have approved of and that holds true to the core principles of Death Cafe of allowing people to talk about death in a safe space with no agenda, alongside tea and food [and] delicious cake,” Barsky said.