Tribute to Jon Underwood, Death Cafe founder

Note: Jon Underwood, the founder of the international Death Cafe, died suddenly on June 27. Read more about it here.

I first heard about Death Café in the spring of 2012. I can’t remember where, but I think it was from someone in the National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA). I was on the board of directors at the time. I thought, “What a brilliant idea! I’m already kind of doing that,” what with a natural death study group I had been leading for two years, and the inevitable discussions that people would stay for after community home funeral presentations. I knew that people need to talk about death and that there wasn’t enough opportunity. So, I began to look into what this Death Café thing was all about.

Jon Underwood and I first talked in November of 2012, via email, and then on Skype on November 15. I had already scheduled my first Death Café for Saturday, November 17, 2012. I had read the website and signed the pledge form, but had some questions and wanted to make sure I was “doing it right.” I will never forget that conversation and Jon’s relaxed, sincere, and loving manner. I think his son was present at the time and he occasionally got interrupted, but managed to pick up the thread and concentrate, nevertheless. Here’s what impressed me:

  • Jon was very encouraging.
  • He was so honest and open about what death café was and his ideas about it.
  • It was clear that his primary concern was helping other people.
  • Death Café is for everyone, everywhere.
  • He was selfless in his work of promoting conversations about death.

As a result of our conversation, I had a clear idea of what Death Café was all about. He sent me Version 1 (January, 2012) of the Death Café Guidelines, the logo and an evaluation form to use. He wanted very much to get feedback from the participants. In this way, Death Café could be improved and would truly be “by and for the people,” not just about any one person’s agenda.

My first Death Café was challenging. I wrote to Jon about it, asking for some guidance about how to be a good facilitator and my struggle between wanting to please others and trusting my own instincts, and he immediately responded with very helpful advice. In his closing he said, “It’s good to listen to other people but as the facilitator of this event I would always suggest listening to your heart.”

Jon contacted me several times after that, the first time to ask me how my Death Café went (!) and the next time to ask for my advice about posting an article about surviving suicide. Over the years he and I continued to consult with one another. He was always so quick to respond, and so helpful. What struck me was that I knew he was that way with everyone who was hosting Death Cafes, all over the world! He was never too busy to share his insights and wisdom, or even to help me with tech problems. When I had trouble navigating the DeathCafe.com website, he would just post my events for me!

Jon always displayed love and caring, even in the busy-ness of running Death Cafe. In the fall of 2013, several of us on the NHFA board asked Jon to post an announcement about an event on the DeathCafe.com website. Here was his response:

“I’m really sorry for not responding before now. The truth is that I have thought long and hard about this, but to cut to the chase I am not going to post details of your conference on the Death Cafe website though I will tweet about it.

The reason for this is that I currently have a policy of only posting Death Cafes on our website. This is because there are many other death events, some good (such as yours) and others not so good. I don’t have the capacity (being a volunteer) or ability to establish a clear policy about what I will and won’t post, or to make these judgments on the fly and be open to challenge and discussion.

That’s probably more explanation than you need, but in this case I am saddened because I love what you do and of course Merilynne has been a great supporter of Death Cafe.”

The Ann Arbor Death Café has been meeting monthly since November of 2012. That makes us the longest standing, consistently meeting Death Café in the world. I have a mailing list of over 325 people (that’s only the people who gave me their email address; there’s more who have attended). At first we consistently got 8-12 people attending. We have now grown to 25 or 30! I send out a monthly email reminder. Jon is on the email list, and frequently would take time to respond with encouragement so I knew he was reading every email! He took it upon himself to post our event on DeathCafe.com even when I didn’t. He congratulated us on the yearly anniversary of our Death Café.

In December of 2014, after our second anniversary, I requested Jon to post photos of our event and a brief story about our celebration. Here’s another example of his kindness and leadership:

“It is nice that you marked your two-year anniversary with asking people to bring along songs and quotes etc. This is a beautiful thing to do but it is not part of the Death Cafe model and causes problems when it is reported as being. These is an important consideration for me as Death Cafe is now running in 27 countries and I think consistency is important. As such I felt I needed to edit the sections about the quotes out. I hope you will understand and feel ok with this. I am happy to discuss further. Wishing you well for the forthcoming festive season.”

What a mensch!

In my last message from Jon, after he posted a year’s worth of Death Café’s for me on DeathCafe.com, he wrote:

“The real Death Cafe still seems a long way away! My priority at the moment is trying to raise some money to pay me to continue to do this work. Death Cafes are now taking place in over 40 countries and this is taking a lot of time. I will be introducing a page on Patroen where people can donate to this work and also sell some merchandise. I hope this helps!” — Jon

The selling of merchandise to raise money was short-lived, but the necessity for funds continues. I know that Jon gave himself wholeheartedly to this work. He made ends meet somehow so that he could continue to be the coordinator of this amazing worldwide network of people talking about death. Because of him, so many have taken to heart his message to “make the most of our finite lives.” His encouragement and love and guidance helped me, in my corner of the world, to do the work I do. I have, and will continue to consider him the guiding light of the movement to embrace death and thus embrace life.

Ann Arbor Death Cafe meets every third Saturday of the month, 10:30 am to 12:30 pm, at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore Tearoom, 114 S. Main St. It’s free; beverages and food available for purchase. All adults are welcome. No need to RSVP.

 

Merilynne Rush, RN, BSN, Ann Arbor (Michigan, USA) Death Café founder and co-host with Diana Cramer, End-of-Life Doula Trainer, Home Funeral Guide, Green Burial Advocate, former home birth midwife and hospice nurse. The Ann Arbor Death Café has been meeting monthly since November 2012. Merilynne is pursuing a Master’s of Science in Hospice and Palliative Studies. Donations to help continue the work of Death Cafe and Jon’s Family can be made here.