In Memory of Jon Underwood

Louise Winter No Comments
Louise Winter

We were devastated to learn that Jon Underwood, the founder of the Death Cafe movement, died on Tuesday.

Jon wholeheartedly believed that engaging with death is both important and overlooked so made it his mission to encourage society to embrace death as part of life.  His life’s work was the Death Cafe movement, which began in Jon’s front room in Hackney in 2011 as a gathering of people talking about death over tea and cake.  The impact of Death Cafe has been huge – as of 28th June 2017, there have been nearly 5000 Death Cafes in over 50 countries.

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

He was a source of invaluable advice, support and encouragement to others in the fields of death and dying, always generous with himself and his resources.  He was one of the good guys – the most genuine, well intentioned, humble, kind hearted and gentle person, both professionally and personally.  His absence will be deeply felt by everyone in our community and beyond.

Our thoughts are with his family right now.

Jon’s commitment to Death Cafe was unrivalled, and came at a cost.  Since 2011, Jon funded his Death Cafe work entirely through his own personal savings and small freelance projects and had recently begun trying to fundraise very actively so he could pay his bills.  We’d love to support Jon’s young children – Frank and Gina –  and have set up a JustGiving page in his memory.  Please donate generously.

Please watch this touching tribute to Jon which includes music by his daughter Gina.

Jon Underwood and his mum, Sue Barksy Reid, who was instrumental in developing the Death Cafe model 
“I met Jon when he was at the beginning of his Death Cafe journey and his quiet determination to create a subtle social change in our attitudes to death was something I had never encountered before. It truly became his vocation, second only to his devotion to his children who were just babies then.
We also worked together setting up Funeral Advisor when I was a trustee of the Natural Death Centre, and he handed over the database of UK funeral directors that he had spent so many hours compiling for me to update and complete before the website was launched. It was a real labour of love and continued to be right until his death.  Unlike other predatory funeral comparison websites, Funeral Advisor was wholly not for profit and must have consumed many hours of Jon’s time looking after it.
Over the years our paths crossed occasionally, we co-hosted a Death Cafe at the Festival Hall once, and bumped into each other at various events. He never changed, he was always a gentle, calm and warm presence in any gathering, and a man who truly lived his truth, his beliefs informing his living and his consciousness of the impermanence of life was a fundamental guidance for his work, to which he was dedicated.

He will be greatly missed but never forgotten, a quiet, inspirational revolutionary whose legacy is a better society. The Death Cafe movement has lost its founder, but his influence will continue spreading, like ripples on a pond.”

Fran Hall, CEO, The Good Funeral Guide

Anna Lyons, Jon Underwood and Louise Winter at Jon’s house in Hackney during Life. Death. Whatever. in October 2016. This photo was taken by his son Frank.
“I first came across Jon when he was involved in an event at the National Gallery called Death & the Masters.  He was talking about the gallery’s paintings and hosting a Death Cafe.  I wanted to attend but was broke and couldn’t afford the £50 entrance fee.  The National Gallery weren’t interested in helping but Jon found out and paid for me using his hosting fee with an insistence that I attend, even though I was a total stranger to him at the time.  It was at that point that I came to understand the sort of person Jon was – generous, thoughtful and extremely special.
He’s been a mentor, an inspiration and a friend to me over the last few years.  His dedication to his work has been unrivalled.  He was a mix of quiet determination, loving kindness, extreme modesty and belief in the importance of the work he was doing.  His commitment to making the world a better place through Death Cafe was unwavering.

The last time I saw Jon was when he was helping at Life. Death. Whatever. which was just around the corner from his house in Hackney, the home of Death Cafe.  He offered his unconditional support in the form of informative talks, a Death Cafe, reassuring emails and many smiles, hugs and cups of tea.”

Louise Winter, Editor, The Good Funeral Guide



“I didn’t know Jon all that well. A man of still waters and deep spirituality, he was a of different order of human being from me. Which was why I liked being around him. People like Jon conduct good energy. I also enjoyed his twinkle. Only Jon could have teamed mortality-awareness with cake. 

I first ‘met’ Jon when he read a blog post on the GFG about Bernard Crettaz, the intellectual progenitor of death cafe. He emailed. It was clear that the idea had gone deep. When he’d thought some more we agreed to meet in Oxford. He said he’d been to college in Oxford. A sixth form college perhaps, I thought. Maybe an FE college. We walked about a bit with the tourists and found ourselves in ancient place of honey-coloured stone and thousand-year-old lawns. ‘This is where I went to college,’ he said. So he was an Oxford man! How typical of him to underplay that. We drank coffee and he outlined his plans for death cafe. I considered what he said and replied carefully. I couldn’t see it taking off. The rest is legacy.”
Charles Cowling, Founder, The Good Funeral Guide

Please leave your tributes to Jon in the comments below.

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