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

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