Jon Underwood, founder of Death Café

Inspired by The Independent, he gave people a space to confront their own mortality

Marcus Williamson
Friday 21 July 2017 11:01 BST
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The 44-year-old had was ‘uniquely aware that life is short’ his partner Donna Molloy said
The 44-year-old had was ‘uniquely aware that life is short’ his partner Donna Molloy said

Jon Underwood, who has died aged 44, was the founder of Death Café, a social franchise and irregular event, now held worldwide, to open up a frank discussion of the end that faces us all. By bringing death out of the darkness at these meetings, Underwood sought to “help people make the most of their (finite) lives” by talking about death and about life, over tea and cake.

In 2010 Underwood had read an article in The Independent by Molly Guinness about the Café Mortel, a public forum on the subject of death, first organised by the Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. Crettaz had stated his mission of liberating death from an atmosphere of what he called “tyrannical secrecy” and laid out his manifesto more fully in the book Cafés Mortels: Sortir la Mort du Silence (Death Cafes: Bringing Death out of Silence).

Underwood was inspired to start his own Death Café in London, the first of which was held in September 2011 at his home in Hackney, chaired by his mother, Sue Barsky Reid, a psychotherapist. Buoyed by the success of the event, Underwood and his mother produced a guide to running a Death Café. The idea began to catch on elsewhere, leading to an event in the US the following year. According to Underwood’s own reckoning, there have since been more than 4800 Death Cafés in 51 countries around the world.

Underwood was a Buddhist and drew on the concept of ‘impermanence’ (Getty)

He lamented what he described as modern society’s “outsourcing of death”, taking the end of life out of the personal realm, such that it has become the exclusive domain of such professionals as doctors, nurses and undertakers. Through the Death Cafés he aimed to reclaim death for the individual, allowing participants to discuss the subject freely and personally from all possible aspects.

As a Buddhist, he drew on the concept of “impermanence” (Anicca in Buddhism), the idea that nothing is for ever, that everything is subject to alteration and that change is the only certainty. He used “Impermanence” as a banner for his work activities beyond Death Café, including the provision of training and mentoring on end of life issues. He had further created a website called Funeral Advisor, providing reviews of funeral homes and undertakers, along the lines of TripAdvisor.

Earlier this year, the BBC World Service produced a documentary about Death Café in which Underwood enquires: “You know you have a certain time left, and then the question is, ‘What is important for me to do in that time?’ That’s different for everyone, so talking about death, for me at least, is the ultimate prioritisation exercise.”

Underwood was born in 1972 and had worked as a web developer before setting up Death Café. He died from a sudden brain haemorrhage caused by undiagnosed acute promyelocytic leukaemia. He is survived by his son, his daughter and his partner Donna Molloy, who said: “Comfort is very hard to find right now, but there is some in the fact that, through his work helping people come to terms with the idea of death, Jon was uniquely and unusually aware that life is short and appreciated his life fully, reflecting on this through daily practice.”

Jon Underwood: born 28 October 1972; died 25 June 2017

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