by Daisy Brocklehurst, with thanks to Dr Emma Liggins (Manchester Met), the Special Collections Museum, and Tea Hive Chorlton.  

Tea Hive outside (c) Emma Liggins

On the hottest week of the year so far, in a café in Chorlton, strangers conversed and shared their experiences of death. From the outside it would appear as if this was just another coffee and cake meet up, but inside tables are strewn with lace, and strangers discuss their experiences of death over red velvet cake.  

This is a death café, a place for strangers and friends to meet and discuss what is often brushed under the carpet. It’s a safe space to talk about experiences with death in our lives that we often don’t get to explore with other people. Organiser Emma Liggins of Manchester Metropolitan University has added a new element to the Chorlton Death Café: Victorian Mourning cards. These cards were sold as trinkets at funerals as a way to remember the deceased; they came in many forms, including bookmarks and notelets. A selection of mourning cards from the Laura Seddon Collection, courtesy of Special Collections Museum, are laid out for participants to admire and take inspiration from making their own mourning card for a loved one.  

I spoke to participants that evening and found that the cultural backgrounds, ages, and reasons for attending were completely diverse and unique. Becky, a Manchester local, had been wanting to attend a death café after her mother passed away suddenly. She says she found the experience of sitting with like-minded people very cathartic; people who had also experienced loss and who were feeling their grief and openly discussing it without judgement. 

Remembrance Plaque

Credit to the Laura Seddon Collection at the Special Collection Museum

Shamin was attending her first death café and was very pleased with the experience; she created her own mourning card bedecked in frills that she described as “a bit messy but that is what death is.” I asked Shamin why she had chosen to attend the Chorlton Death Café:

“I feel like I have had a lot of loss for my young age, in comparison to other people, not that it’s a competition. So, I thought I would come along and see what it is all about. I was born here, and the British culture is that you have your certain time off [when somebody dies], and then you get back on the horse, and you’re not really allowed to express how you feel. You’re expected to be fine and it’s the same in Asian culture as well. It's expected you move on now, when in actual fact you never quite move on, you learn to live around it but it changes you especially when it's one of your loved ones; and I feel that with the loss I’ve had so far there’s not that free space to talk about the person you’ve lost because people can’t deal with death very easily, and they become very uncomfortable; it’s not something that people want to confront.”

Shamin went on to say that she sits with her grief instead of ignoring it, letting it wash over her and ultimately coming to feel closer to her brother.

Neil, another attendee from Chorlton, brought joy and celebration to the evening: “to celebrate someone when they’ve died is the best thing you can do.”

In Memoriam Note

Credit to the Laura Seddon Collection at the Special Collection Museum 

To spend a sunny evening discussing death and the messiness of it all may seem dark and morbid but that night laughter and stories were shared amongst strangers discussing the hardest events they have had to go through in life and everyone seemed a little bit lighter for it. The Chorlton Death café has created a community that accepts loss and grief as something we will all experience.