A Sad Farewell to the Man Who Started a Movement

Six years ago, a man and his mother started a worldwide movement. The 50-country-strong Death Café community is rocked today by news of the sudden death of founder Jon Underwood.

Jon, who inspired, guided, and supported hundreds of volunteer hosts and whose work impacted untold thousands, died suddenly on Tuesday 27th June from an undiagnosed Acute Promyelocytic Leukaemia.  He was 44.

As for me, I consider myself enormously privileged to have shared a number of conversations with Jon. He generously made himself available across 8 time zones to advise me as I organized the first PDX Death Café in 2013. Among Jon’s gifts were clarity of vision and focus, and humble but firm directness in communicating that vision and maintaining the focus.

I was one of the plethora of hosts who veered from the simple and effective model that defines the Death Café brand. In those heady early years, Jon patiently conveyed to me the necessity of respecting Death Café guidelines if using the name, while never discouraging other approaches to talking about death. Jon’s integrity and skillful boundary-setting, along with his extraordinary generosity, will remain touchstones for me until the end of my days.

It’s not an overstatement to say that Death Café changed the course of my life. I know many can say the same. The ripples from Jon’s life will be washing up on shores around the world for years to come. I’m deeply saddened by news of his death, and deeply grateful for the way he chose to spend his days.

From the press release issued by his family…

At a DeathCafé people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. The objective of DeathCafé is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.’  DeathCafés encourage interesting, unstructured conversation – open and free-flowing with no specific agenda.

Jon started DeathCafé from his home in Hackney in September 2011.  He was influenced by the ideas of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who hosted Cafe Mortel events in France and Switzerland.  Since the first DeathCafé in 2011, almost 5000 DeathCafés have been held in over 50 countries in diverse locations including festivals, local cafes, front rooms, farms, schools and universities, and hospices.  Death Café has received unprecedented global press coverage including the front page of the New York Times.

Jon was born in Chester in 1972 was educated at Queens Park High School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford where he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He met his wife, Donna Molloy, at university and they have been together ever since.

Jon was always searching for spiritual meaning.  At university he began to look at Buddhism and went on to study at the Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London.  He remained close to his spiritual teacher Geshe Tashi throughout his life.

In 2000, Jon began working at the Jamyang Centre as manager.  He worked on many projects combatting social exclusion and winning a Beacon Award for a programme for ex-offenders.

Jon also painstakingly built and managed Funeral Advisor in association with the Natural Death Centre Charity and ran Impermanence an umbrella company – his commitment to doing good in the world by encouraging society to deal with death in interesting and innovative ways.

Jon lived in Hackney with his wife Donna Molloy and his two young children, Frank (10) and Gina (6).

His wife Donna Molloy has said: “Jon was uniquely and unusually aware that life is short and appreciated his life fully, reflecting on this through daily practice.  He lived every day reflecting very consciously on the fact that none of us know how long we have and focussed completely on being present in, and making the most of every minute.

Through his life he helped hundreds of people as all over the world to regularly come together, drink tea and eat delicious cake whilst taking time out to remember what really matters.  He has single-handedly changed cultures around death and end of life awareness, not just in the UK, but across the globe.”

His mother Sue Barsky Reid and his sister Jools Barsky will continue his work on the Death Cafe movement, as Jon requested.

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2 Comments on “A Sad Farewell to the Man Who Started a Movement

  1. This world is blessed because Jon was passionate about spreading the word that talking about death was okay… even more than okay… talking about death could be an everyday conversation over tea and crumpets, thus the Death Cafe movement.

    Those of us who believe as Jon did, that talking about death and dying is an important part of living, knowing we can’t have one without the other. They are two sides of the same coin.

    Thank you Jon and all of the thousands of Death Cafe’s that have sprung up across our planet. Thank you for bringing it to our tables.

    God bless.

  2. I had the pleasure of learning about “death cafes” researching for a report in my last semester course on Death & Dying.
    RIP and thank you for bring the subject of death, the ability for many to talk about it.