In the middle of the graveyard in Vissoie, a small town in the Swiss mountain valley of Anniviers, stands a grey stone cross. For years, the cross was the focus of a local competition among the town’s teenagers. The brief was simple: turn up at midnight, sit by the cross, and whoever lasts the longest wins. By day, the task doesn’t seem too onerous. The graveyard is absurdly picturesque, perched on the side of a hill next to the church, the valley dropping away to a river, mountains on the far side rising up against a faultless blue sky. Even the graves are palatable: there’s no ornate Victoriana here, no ghoulishness or mawkish angels, no sentimental inscriptions; just a few rows of simple wooden crosses planted in the ground. (A rule was declared in the town that the dead should all be commemorated identically, to prevent wealth-displaying one-upmanship.)
Not long ago, Bernard Crettaz, an eminent Swiss sociologist who was born and raised in Vissoie, sat on a stone wall by the shared grave of his parents—Pierre and Genevieve—and recalled his year of competition. The dare was a test of bravery but also maturity, a coming-of-age ritual, sitting in the pitch dark among the buried bones of your ancestors. Crettaz had stuck it out, and won. He still looked a little proud of the feat. As he remembered the long night, he watched old friends and neighbours as they visited the graves of their families. It was Toussaint, All Saints’ Day, the occasion in the Catholic calendar when the living pay respects to their dead. The graveyard had the air of a cocktail party, cousins greeting each other across the bunches of yellow crysanthemums that had been placed on the tombs. Crettaz, a short, roundish man of 78, eyebrow hair so long and wild that it looked in danger of knitting over his eyes, was now one of the town’s elder statesmen. As he sat by his parents’ grave, the priest came to shake his hand. He was their local celebrity, a sort of Swiss Simon Schama, a popular academic often seen on television giving a view—his ebullient, forceful personality translated easily to the small screen. Crettaz had been a prominent ’68-er, a radical in his youth, and had enjoyed a rich career as a lecturer of sociology and ethnography in Geneva. But he was most famous for his work on death. A decade ago, not long after the death of his first wife Yvonne, Crettaz had come up with the idea of cafés mortels, informal gatherings where the sole topic of conversation was every living thing’s inevitable demise. After holding over a hundred of these cafés across Switzerland, he’d developed a certain renown. Looking a little mournful, he described how a local family who’d suffered a string of recent bereavements had turned away when they saw him walking towards them down the street. He had become “l’homme qui porte la mort,” he said, the man who carries death.
The only rule was that there was to be no prescription: no topic, no religion, no judgement.The idea for the café mortel was simple: the gathering was to take place in a restaurant, anyone could come, and Crettaz himself would gently marshall the conversation. The only rule was that there was to be no prescription: no topic, no religion, no judgement. He wanted people to talk as openly on the subject as they could. His first café mortel took place in 2004 in the Restaurant du Théâtre du Passage in the Swiss town of Neuchâtel. Word spread and Crettaz began holding more cafes, some of his own instigation, others where he was invited to host. In 2010, he held one in Paris which was reported in the Independent. Jon Underwood, a former council worker living in east London, happened to read the article and, inspired, held his own death café at his house in Hackney. Underwood also started a website, deathcafe.com, where he posted a guide to hosting a café, crediting Crettaz’s cafés mortels as his model. The concept caught on, and travelled round the world. In the last three years, there have been over 1,400 death cafés in 26 countries. Go on the website now and you’ll find forthcoming cafés listed everywhere from New Zealand to Argentina, Cardiff to Vancouver. Crettaz’s small social experiment has gone global.
Mortality’s in vogue. The cliché goes that sex was the taboo of the 19th century and death the taboo of the 20th, but in truth, we are now talking about death more than ever before. The political agenda has played a part. In July 2014, Charles Falconer’s assisted dying bill received its second reading in the House of Lords. Impassioned speeches were delivered on both sides of the debate as protestors gathered with placards outside the Houses of Parliament. Disabled advocates such as Jane Campbell spoke of their fear of what such a power might mean: “It frightens me,” she said, “because in periods of greatest difficulty I know I might be tempted to use it.” Others—such as Patience Wheatcroft, who described how her mother would have “grasped a loaded gun” at the end of her life if she could—supported a measure that would enable those suffering from prolonged ill-health to control their own death.
This, after all, is how most of us will go: a slow decline, a gradual loss of faculties, a dissolution of self. One in three of us will die with dementia, a disease that by 2051 will affect two million people in the UK. A century ago, before the invention of penicillin, you could rely on an infectious disease to finish you off in a week or two. “Now you can be diagnosed with a disease,” says Tony Walter, director of Bath University’s Centre for Death and Society, “and you might live very healthily for the next 10 or 15 years. But you know you have a life threatening condition.”
The way we die has fundamentally changed. “I would love to die at 85 having had a very healthy 20 year retirement and I’d love to die in my sleep after a long walk on the Cumbrian fells [and] a good dinner afterwards,” says Walter. “But the chances of that happening I know are pretty low. I’m likely to have a much more dwindling, much more lonely death. And we do need to address how to deal with that, both as a society and as individuals and families.” Once, religion equipped us with the rules and tools to comprehend death. But a broadly secular society has to find new strategies, particularly because soon more of us will be dying than ever before. Just as the birth rate shot up in postwar Britain, so our death rate will rise dramatically over the next 30 years as that generation reaches its life expectancy. Our population is ageing fast: there are 10m over-65s in Britain today, a number that is expected almost to double to 19m by 2050. And it’s not just any generation coming of age; it’s the baby boomers, a group, says Walter, who “value choice” and who have watched their own elderly parents die slowly and miserably in care homes. They won’t stand for the status quo.
As a result, death has become a more prominent subject in the national conversation. In 2009, the National Council for Palliative Care set up Dying Matters, a coalition of NHS, charitable and other related organisations whose express aim was to spur the public into talking about death. The coalition runs campaigns on dealing with grief, and encourages people to engage with their own deaths by expressing funeral wishes and writing living wills. The effort has gradually filtered through: two years ago, the South Bank Centre held a hugely popular “Death Festival” featuring debates, readings, puppet shows and an international coffin exhibition. Last October, there was the first “London Month of the Dead,” a curated series of events including cemetery walks, catacomb tours and culminating in a “Day of the Dead Ball” in St Pancras. It’s no wonder that Being Mortal, the new book by American surgeon-writer (and the BBC’s Reith lecturer in 2014) Atul Gawande, has become a much-discussed bestseller.
Gawande was on Radio 4’s Start the Week recently, talking about his book. A fellow guest was medical ethicist Deborah Bowman who was introduced by presenter Andrew Marr as someone who was going to talk about a “strange, strange thing”: the death café. “I’m not sure I would describe them as strange,” replied Bowman. “They sound strange, but when you go to them… the only brief is that you will talk about death over cups of tea and lots of cake.”
Certainly, at every death café I’ve attended, the atmosphere was liberatingly light-hearted. My first was at Bill’s restaurant on Putney High Street. A group of five strangers sat round a small table and the conversation ranged: suicide, grief, good deaths and bad deaths, near-death experiences, faith, spirit, soul. My second was in a public library in Alexandra Palace. The gathering was larger and the participants mostly older, the topics more practical: living wills, funerals, end-of-life care, assisted dying, the Falconer bill. You could sense the palpable relief felt by some of the speakers as they voiced their desires for the kind of death they wanted, desires that their children shrank from hearing about or discussing. At last, here was a place where people didn’t mind you saying that you wanted a massive injection of morphine to tip you over the edge when you no longer knew your own name.
My third death café was in a Café Rouge in Hampstead, a monthly fixture organised by Josefine Speyer, founder of the Natural Death Movement. Her café has become so popular that she has to operate a waiting list, and on the cold December night I attended, the room was so full and boisterous that you had to boom your thoughts on loss and the afterlife over the din. Each café had its own distinct atmosphere, but they all shared the same thing: a sense of energy, something approaching glee, at being able to talk freely and honestly about death.
Bernard Crettaz’s long-held fantasy was that he would die during a café mortel. He revealed this recently, to great hilarity, as he ate lunch in the cafeteria of the École d’Études Sociales et Pédagogiques on the outskirts of Lausanne. In 1982, Crettaz had co-founded the Société d’Études Thanatologiques (Society of Death Studies) here, and chaired it for nearly 20 years, stepping down in 2000. He was back today—31st October 2014, Halloween—to hold a café mortel. This was not going to be an ordinary café. He had invited various people to speak—friends, ex-colleagues, people who had attended previous cafés. Crettaz wanted the whole idea of the café mortel to be interrogated. The discussion would be his way of signing off, for this café mortel would be his last. “Que meurt les cafés mortels,” was the title he’d given the evening: the death of death cafés. “It’s time to hand over to the next generation,” he said, sombrely, with that note of drama that often accompanied his pronouncements. “My generation can now die.”
As it got dark outside, the cafeteria began to fill with people. Square tables were laid with bowls of nuts and bottles of wine. Gradually every seat was taken, people stood at the sides. In the middle, a beacon in his red jumper, sat Crettaz. There was something of the flare of celebrity around him, and people both flocked to talk to him and gave him space, as though he had a magnetic field around his body. He rose to his feet and introduced the evening and then, one by one, his invited speakers stood up: there was a woman whose young daughter had died from cancer, another who’d lost a baby at birth, a funeral director, a psychiatrist, a nurse specialising in palliative care. Some had started holding their own cafés mortels, others simply thanked Crettaz for giving them a place to say the unsayable, to speak of death. “You opened the door,” said the mother who’d daughter had died. At the very end, Crettaz introduced Fanny, a tall, dark-haired young woman, who was standing at the edge of the room. He invited her to tell her story. A couple of years ago, Fanny had come to a café mortel Crettaz had held in Geneva. She’d told the group, mostly old Genevoise women, the story of her husband who had recently committed suicide. Next to her sat a pastor, in tears. Crettaz invited the pastor to speak and she said that Fanny’s husband had also been the love of her life. Both women were devastated; the old Genevoise women were rather taken aback. Crettaz met Fanny again a couple of weeks ago, and asked her how she was. It transpired that she had quit her job not long after that café mortel in Geneva, and started working in a funeral parlour. She’d also trained as a grief counsellor, and had found love again—with an undertaker. A tiny coffin hung off her keyring. This was a love affair with death.
At the end, everyone ate and drank and the atmosphere was celebratory, carnivalesque. But gradually, the room emptied; Crettaz’s final café mortel was over. It was time to go home, back to Anniviers, the birthplace of the café mortel. As a young boy, Crettaz explained to me the next day, as we sat eating breakfast in his apartment with a view of the mountains, his mother and father had taken him down to the cellar of their house and shown him the wine and cheese they’d laid down years ago to be drunk and eaten at their funeral. This was an old tradition of the valley, one that was fading with his generation. For Crettaz, it was at the root of all his thinking, all his work. Death, in the form of slowly ageing mountain cheese and sweet white wine, lived among his family: they were physical reminders of the nearing end. At the funerals of his parents, he said, “I stood at the entrance of the cemetery and spoke the ritual phrase: ‘Come to the meal because he left enough.’” The meal that followed the burial was a fundamental part of accepting death. “It was a space to return to life.” Crettaz’s childhood friend André was one of a few people in Vissoie who had kept the tradition alive. During the week, André ran a construction company in Sierre, the town on the plain. But at weekends he drove up the winding road to Vissoie and spent time in “the cave,” a cellar where he kept barrels of 200-year-old wine, and great wheels of cheese, one for the funeral for each member of his family. “When we go into the cave,” said Crettaz, deeply serious, “it’s the truth.”
The cave itself was a small, dark room with a wooden table and benches to one side. Huge barrels were laid down in a row, and cow bells arrayed on a shelf. As André poured small glasses of wine the colour, and almost the consistency, of honey, a respectful hush fell on the group—Crettaz, his wife Elizabeth, André’s wife and son, Jean Daniel. “We are in a ritual,” explained Crettaz. First, you rubbed a little wine on the soft patch of skin between thumb and forefinger, to fully appreciate its scent, then you sipped it. Then you tried the cheese—paper-thin slices with an uncanny resemblance to wood shavings. They tasted strangely good, a little dry but delicate, almost holy with age. “The ritual has nothing to do with religion,” Jean Daniel said. It was a pagan rite, one that had existed here in Anniviers before Christianity had even reached the valley. His burial, said André, would not be religious either: there would be folk music, the wine and cheese, a ceremony determined not just by him, but by generation after generation before him. It was a comfort to know exactly how it would be. When André’s seven-year-old grandson came to the cave recently, he pointed up to where the wheels of cheese were kept on a top shelf, to protect them from mice. “Here is the cheese for my death,” he said, proudly.
After Crettaz left, he went to the churchyard. He would not attend the Toussaint service itself. His religious period had long passed—three years as a trainee priest when he was young, mostly to fulfill his mother’s burdensome expectations. It didn’t last. As he sat by his parents’ graves, Crettaz seemed to shrink a little, become fragile, his usual vivacity absent. He remembered what his mother had said to him on her deathbed: “All my life you have made me cry.” After she died and was buried here, he came to visit his parents’ graves. “I said, ‘I’ll speak now. You can’t speak any more.’ I said, ‘Papa, why did you not defend me?’” He told them how he’d felt mistreated, and forgave them. “For me that was very important,” he said. “Now I am at peace.”
The end of the cafés mortels is a charged moment for Crettaz, even as his idea finds new life and new participants around the world. “It’s very painful,” he said, standing in the thin sun of the morning, the day after Toussaint. “Each café mortel was an extraordinary adventure. It’s a true loss, like a death for me.” When I asked him why he was stopping, he said he felt that at the age of 78 it was time to think about the end of his own life. “After having heard so much about death from others, I no longer thought of my own death,” he said. Crettaz had no wine and cheese laid down for his funeral. Though his valley’s tradition had shaped his life’s work, he hadn’t adopted it for himself. Instead, through his cafes mortels he’d developed his own understanding of mortality, in part a reaction to the religion of his youth. “When I was a young Catholic, the church made us read a book from the middle ages, The Imitation of Jesus Christ. In this book there was a terrible phrase: ‘Live each moment of your life as if it was your last, because if you die in a state of sin, you will go to hell.’” Crettaz shook his head in disbelief. “I was educated in this religion. It was a horror, this religion. But this image was in my memory, and I searched where this text came from, and it came from the Greeks. So I returned to the Greeks, and the Greeks said, ‘Live each moment of your life as if it was your last,’ and that’s it. Be the maximum of your being.” The strength of feeling in his voice crushed any suggestion of sentimentality. As did his parting words: “If Bernard Crettaz dies ‘gaga,’ by suicide, in a hospital, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “If you put all the intensity of yourself in this moment, then you live.”