Jon Underwood, Founder of Death Cafe Movement, Dies at 44

Courtesy of New York Times | By 

LONDON — Jon Underwood, who as the founder of the Death Cafe here encouraged people around the world to discuss, over tea and cake, life, the finality of life and why we fear it, died on June 27 in London. He was 44.

His wife, Donna Molloy, said that the cause was a brain hemorrhage from acute promyelocytic leukemia. His death was sudden, she said; his leukemia had not been diagnosed.

Mr. Underwood was working as a strategy and business development director for the council of Tower Hamlets, a London borough, when he came across an article about the so-called cafe mortels — which were events rather than places — started in 2004 by Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist.

As a Buddhist, Mr. Underwood had already contemplated the philosophical questions of dying. Although everyone experiences it, he felt, the topic seemed so taboo that no one wanted to discuss it.

Death has “a magical sort of quality about it,” he said in a speech in 2014.

He quit his job and decided to bring the movement to London. “He said that no job would be more meaningful than this,” his wife said.

From the basement of his house in Hackney, an artsy borough in London’s East End, Mr. Underwood perpetuated a movement that spread to more than a dozen countries with more than 1,000 gatherings.

He came to learn that the meetings, which began in 2011, were more about laughter than tears. People often talked less about how to die than how to live.

These were not grief support groups or end-of-life planning sessions, but rather casual forums for people who wanted to bat around philosophical thoughts. What is death like? Why do we fear it? How do our views of death inform the way we live?

“You know you have a certain time left, and then the question is, What is important for me to do in that time?” Mr. Underwood said in a BBC interview in 2014. “That’s different for everyone, so talking about death, for me at least, is the ultimate prioritization exercise.”

Each meeting was led by a volunteer facilitator (one of the cafe’s founding principles was “Never do it for cash”). The participants included people of all ages, working and retired, who were drawn by Facebook announcements, storefront fliers, local calendar listings or word of mouth. Women usually outnumbered men.

The purpose, Mr. Underwood said, was not to influence attendees or lead them to any sort of conclusion or course of action.

Cake and tea, however, was a must.

“Some people have a fear that by talking about death, it will attract death and make it more likely to happen,” he said. “Eating and drinking are conscious acts of nurturing the body. They help mitigate the fear.”

Mr. Underwood, said Rosie Inman-Cook, one of the directors of the Natural Death Center, a nonprofit funeral counseling service, “was so aware of mortality that he lived every day to the fullest.”

Jonathan Underwood was born on Oct. 28, 1972, in Chester, England, to Mike Underwood, an accountant, and Sue Barsky Reid, a psychotherapist. He attended Queen’s Park High School in Chester, and studied politics, philosophy and economics at the University of Oxford, where he met his wife, whom he married in 2006. In addition to her, he is survived by a daughter, Gina; a son, Frank; his parents; a brother, Matt; and a sister, Jools.

Ms. Molloy said she recently found an interview in which Mr. Underwood was asked about his own death: Did he fear it?

It’s not “that I’m not scared of dying — I am!” he said. “But doing this work has given me confidence that whatever happens I will respond with openness and resilience. I know I will cope. That’s really useful!”

Correction: July 14, 2017 
An obituary on Wednesday about Jon Underwood, the founder of the Death Cafe movement, misstated the profession of Sue Barsky Reid, his mother. She is a psychotherapist, not a psychiatrist.

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