Never say die? Far from it in Paris death café

Good coffee, a comfortable seat and someone interesting to talk to are the prerequisites for visiting any café, even if the conversation is about death. Last week, the Swiss tradition of cafés mortels – or death cafés – made it to Paris, with the city's first death café event held in a bistro near Montparnasse.

The concept, although a little morbid, is straightforward enough – a dozen strangers meet to have a drink and talk about death for a couple of hours. The participants in Paris were surprised by how straightforward the discussion was.

One described how she had two parents with Alzheimer's; and how, in a way, she wants them to die. Another woman of about 40 said only one sentence: she has cancer and her three children think of her as already dead.

Antoine Louis, a pastor, described how he had once received a call from his mother saying she had killed his father. "I rushed home and found my mother prostrated, immobilised, paralysed in the blood beside my father's body." It turned out that Mr Louis' father had shot himself during an argument. He said being a pastor meant he dealt with the situation better than he would have expected, and better than most other people.

In a city famous for existentialist, Gauloise-waving symposiums, people were relieved the conversation more or less avoided abstract nouns.

"Among French people, that does not happen often," said Marie Lefebvre, who attended the first session. "In fact, it's only when they talk about death."

Death is a taboo subject in France, according to Swiss sociologist and death café pioneer Bernard Crettaz. "French people find it very difficult to talk about death," he said. He says his mission is to liberate death from what he calls "tyrannical secrecy".

"I am never so in tune with the truth as during one of these soirées. And I have the impression that the assembled company, for a moment, and thanks to death, is born into authenticity," he writes in his new book, Cafés Mortels: Sortir la Mort du Silence, or "bringing death out of silence".

Paris's next café mortel has yet to be organised, but Mr Crettaz is optimistic that it's only a matter of time before France takes them up with enthusiasm. Restaurant owners in Paris draw the line at that, though, saying death talk, no matter how convivial, is bad for business.