Death Cafes bring grave matters to life

by Geoff Olson

Death is rarely a first-choice topic for casual conversation among friends and strangers. But with an aging population and growing issues involving palliative care and pain management — to say nothing  of the background hum of our finite personal lives — there appears to be an increasing desire for public conversation about end-of-life matters. Hence the hundreds of “Death Cafe” discussion groups that have appeared across the world since 2011.

The template for these events was provided by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid in Britain, who drew upon the 2004 “Cafe Mortel” in Paris, hosted by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz.

“There is a kind of alchemy that happens when strangers come together in a true spirit of open conversation — deep listening, honest and vulnerable sharing, curiosity and humour,” Death Cafe host Ann Gillespie writes by email.

“Add to the mix a warm, inviting and safe atmosphere with tea and delicious cake, and you have the raw ingredients that have drawn people to Death Cafes around the world.”

Not long after the launch of the first Vancouver-based Death Cafe, Gillespie and Abegael Fisher-Lang set out to host a North Vancouver version at Casa Nova Cafe. There has been three events so far, and they have been unexpectedly upbeat — likely because the participants found it freeing to connect with like-minded strangers over a sensitive topic.

The North Shore Death Cafe on Nov. 1 of last year hearkened to the Gaelic festival of Samhain and the Mexican Day of the Dead. A table of glowing candles beckoned  patrons to include photos of departed loved ones or friends, and speak a few words of remembrance. The warm and welcoming words of the hosts, and the tasty death cafe cake, effectively warded off the grim, monochromatic approach to death common to Anglo-American traditions.

“At our Dia de Los Muertos on Nov. 1, photos of beloved ones were on our festival table. We toasted  them; listened to stories about growing up in Mexico with the calveritas — little sugar skulls — and the fear and joy of the parades to the burial grounds,” observes Fisher-Lang on her blog.

For the North Shore Death Cafe, the Day of the Dead and Samhain were more like conversational placeholders than dogmatic touchstones.

“We’re not meeting in a church or a temple or in a faith tradition,” noted Fisher-Lang in her introduction to the event. “We’re meeting as individuals with our own experiences with our own thoughts our own paths, and the main premise of this death cafe is listening. As conversationalists our first commitment to the death cafe to listen to others. We’re committed to not counsel someone. We are committed not to sell anything, we are committed to not proselytize. We’re committed only to keep our hearts open so that true conversation can flourish.”

Participants at each table were encouraged to approach the topic from any angle, with well-designed suggestion cards offering areas of conversation. At the first Death Cafe in North Vancouver, one table meandered from how dying is portrayed in film to the process of grieving to home funerals. Ecological alternatives to regular burial were mentioned. Another table focused on near death experiences, and speculations on life after death.

By their structure, the cafes encourage participants to think of death and dying as a natural process inseparable from life. We all become “thanonauts” at one point or another, but anxiety about our impending journey, or those of others, spooks most of us into silence. Talking about death in all its manifestations can weaken its bony grip on our hearts and minds.

Gillespie noted the global dimension of Death Cafes at a previous event:

“I venture to say that all of the people here all of us participating in Death Cafe in all parts of the world are part of a revolution, the seeds of which are being dispersed as people get together in  living rooms, community halls, and places like this that are comfortable and conducive to free conversation. I consider that a bit of a revolution — if not a revolution, then certainly a movement,” she said brightly.

The Vancouver Courier, May 9

Birthday party mines Boomer and Gen X memories

by Geoff Olson

A friend of mine had one request for guests at her April birthday party. Instead of gifts, “please think of something to share with others at the party that was different when you were growing up from the way kids grow up now.”

The guests — a mix of Boomers and Gen-X’ers — were part of the demographic that had bridged the analog and digital worlds. None were strangers to boom boxes, dial-up modems, cursive writing, white-out correction fluid, and mix tapes.

The first topic to come up was toys. One of the guests argued that kids now have access to cheap, precision-made diversions that outclass the clunky plastic products of yesteryear. He enthusiastically demonstrated an example he bought just for the occasion: a nerf-disc shooting toy gun.

This rise in quality and drop in price in plastic toys isn’t an unambiguously positive development, of course. I’ve been to homes where there are more playthings than furnishings. The bulk of this kid stuff is assembled in offshore sweatshops by labourers working under outrageous conditions for indefensible wages. The merchandise is then exported halfway around the world, with its ultimate destination in landfills.

We were all in agreement that media diversity has greatly expanded, with fewer touchstones of shared experience. Back in the ’70s, every other home was defined by the yellow spines of National Geographic magazines, and a cabinet television tuned to the cathode-ray gruel of three bonehead U.S. networks. CBC television was notable mostly for hockey games and the human sleeping pill, anchorman Knowlton Nash.

Like me, everyone at the party recalled playing outdoors until it was dark, and walking to school unattended by parents. We were always with friends after school and on weekends, which made for both spontaneous play and strength in numbers. “Helicopter parenting” was unknown, and undoubtedly would have been considered pathological by society at large.

For me, one major change involves the transformation in reproduction, from mimeographs to Xeroxes to home printers. Today’s kids have access to the infinite copyability of digital media; they cut and paste images and text from the web like their parents handled crayons, and mash up copyrighted video images into their own creations.

Contrast this with a ’60s-era product called Silly Putty. This grey, stretchy substance came in a plastic egg and had a paucity of interesting properties. You could squish it down onto the panel of a comic book and peel it back, revealing a colour mirror image on the flattened grey surface. For a seven-year old kid like me, that was way cool. Today I can’t imagine it would now be anything but boring or dorky to anyone over the age of four.

Related to reproduction is the portability of music. As someone observed at the party, it used to be that if  you were going on a long trip you had to be selective about which cassettes you were bringing, since that was all the music you’d have for your Walkman. With an iPod or iPhone? Fughettaboutit.

Today’s infoglut includes pornography, which used to be difficult for kids to access. Social psychologists currently researching the effect of digital porn on the young have come up with a series of non-conclusions, in part because it’s nearly impossible to find teens who have never seen X-rated images and videos. There are no control groups.

And then there’s Batman. A guest at the party recalled Adam West’s campy version of Batman in the ’60s ABC television series — a zeitgeist away from the today’s film franchise starring Christopher Bale as a raspy neurotic in a rubber suit.

On a lighter perspective on this topic, there’s Anne Jane Grossman’s 2009 book, Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once Common Things Passing Us By. Among the author’s entries are airport goodbyes, appendicitis scars, tonsillectomies, body hair, comb-overs, hitchhikers, pocket calculators, social emailing, wrinkles and writing letters.

The book also has an entry for nuns. Whatever happened to them? I remember seeing nuns fairly often in the streets of my childhood town, but they seem pretty thin on the ground these days. Perhaps women no longer find the clergy habit-forming.

Sorry, had to end this with a bad pun. Luckily, there appears to be less of those around these days, too. Some things change for the better.

The Vancouver Courier, May 1


GiIt’s been a while since I visited Granville Island. So on a recent Friday afternoon I parked myself outside the food market with an overpriced burrito and enjoyed the view.

Granville Island,  a federal government initiative involving mixed-use of space by retail, commercial, industrial, and public interests, debuted in 1979. There were many skeptics of this experiment in “new urbanism,” but the spot turned out to be one of the second biggest tourist draws to the city next to Stanley Park.

Surprise, surprise: it turns out that a food market, cement plant, boatyard, art school, community centre and water park could fit together comfortably with restaurants and theatres.

Watching the bulbous Aquabus bob over to the north side of False Creek, I thought back to a favourite Granville Island moment from years back, during the now defunct Comedyfest. At the count of three, a comic had his outdoor audience point their fingers at the Granville Bridge and yell out in unison, “Hey you!” A pedestrian on the bridge popped his head over the edge of the railing to look down, as hundreds of people burst into laughter.

On this Friday afternoon, the market was busy but manageable to navigate. Wandering over to the False Creek community centre and over to Ron Basford park, I was struck how Granville Island feels more like an urban oasis than ever before.

“This is beautiful,” I thought, at the pinnacle of Basford’s open air amphitheatre.

Increasing numbers of areas in Metro Vancouver are defined by skyscrapers and their darkened canyons, and Granville Island is one remaining urban development where  sunlight isn’t trumped by shadow. But given Vision Vancouver’s enthusiasm for vertically directed ecodensity, it was probably only a matter of time before we’d start hearing about how old and stodgy Granville Island is.

A February editorial in the Vancouver Sun bore the headline,  “It’s time to re-imagine and renew Granville Island.” The peg in the story is the planned relocation of Emily Carr School of Art to Great Northern Way, which will open up 200,000 square feet of space and two buildings.

Obviously something new and inventive is needed in Emily Carr’s absence, and the Sun isn’t off-base in claiming that Granville Island is a bit dead at night. What concerns me is the insistence that the place is “looking a bit dated” at 35 years of age, and the departure of the art school is “an opportunity for a modernization of the entire site.”

It could use sprucing up in places, but from another perspective, 35 years of age makes much of it a retro gem. Modernize “the entire site”? Let’s not forget Vancouver’s sublime Orpheum Theatre, which first opened in 1929, was narrowly spared the wrecking ball  in 1979.

The editorial advocates wresting control of Granville Island away form the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation, while looking to the Vancouver International Airport Authority’s transformation of YVR as a good template. But last time I checked, airports are still considered departure and arrival points, not spots travellers care to linger at.

The ’70s government initiative that made Granville Island drew on input from Vancouverites. I would hope a rehaul of Granville Island would draw on local feedback from non-developers, without it turning into public hearings Kabuki theatre, for a done deal that benefits offshore investors who leave their properties empty.

I don’t share Sun editorial writer Daphne Bramham’s conviction that stakeholders “will ensure that Granville Island 2.0 isn’t cluttered with tourist shops, global chains or condos and that its next incarnation is even better than the first one.” I’m not convinced it’s unavoidable, either. Yet given the boxy monoculture of commercial and residential development in this city, and the intense pressure to maximize profit per square metre, I fear it will be a Bride of Frankenstein makeover.

Will this sunlit patch of city be left in the dark, like the glass canyons downtown?

In the classic 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Canadian urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote, “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.” Her advice is still worth heeding.

The Vancouver Courier, Apr. 28