By Marilyn Dion, Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant®
October is the month in North America when we start decorating our homes in preparation for fall and Halloween. Pumpkins, skeletons, and plastic tombstones are put on view for the delight of children of all ages. Purchasing and hanging those dollar store plastic skeletons are usually the closest many people come to talking openly about death and our fear of dying. Even when an individual wants to discuss death, the subject is changed and swept under the rug. It doesn’t take long for children to get the message that speaking about death is taboo.
A Swiss sociologist and anthropologist, named Bernard Crettaz, established a Café Mortel in 2004 that involved talking about death in a public place while enjoying food and drink. After reading an article about it in 2010, Jon Underwood of England was inspired to start the death café movement. He felt that the world would be so much better if people dealt with their fear of dying. Jon created a website www.deathcafe.com where anyone can download a guide and post their own Death Café events.
His mother Susan Barsky Reid, a psychologist, was the facilitator of the first death café held in London, England in September 2011. The founders continued for six years leading the international phenomenon until Jon suddenly died as a result of leukemia in June 2017. Since the modest beginnings, Death Cafés have spread across the world to at least 35 countries.
WHAT THEY ARE
A Death Café is a scheduled event with an approved, facilitator who creates a safe intimate, nurturing and supportive space for groups of people, often strangers, to discuss death and fears of dying. The sharing of nourishment, most commonly tea and cake is part of the event, though beer, wine, cheese and crackers have been part of the refreshments on some occasions. They are open to anyone who wishes to talk, to listen and to explore perspectives. They are times where discussion allows navigation and safe reflection on the difficult, uncomfortable topics surrounding death and dying. Many attendees taking part in discussions about death at the no bells and whistles Death Cafés discover the gatherings are surprisingly positive, vibrant and special. Unexpectedly the conversations are as much about life as they are about death as the two are inseparable. Underwood said
“Life and death are interdependent. The best preparation for death is to have a great life.”
WHAT THEY ARE NOT
The Death Café is not a physical location but a pop-up type of event hosted at homes, libraries, meeting rooms, bars, restaurants or other venues, sometimes even grave yards. There is no “agenda”, no speakers, and no cost.
Death Cafés are not support groups for the recently bereaved nor are they therapy. They are not morbid nor are they depressing. They are not awkward, like the unease of trying to have a conversation with family and friends who do not want to talk about death. They are not a place where anything is sold. It is important that there are no prescriptions, no topics, no religions, no judgments, only respect shown to all participants.
The official objective of a Death Café is “to increase awareness of death in order to help people make the most of their finite lives.”
Over the last 100 years, families have lost control over death and dying, perhaps the most significant event we have to face. In the days before the growth of the funeral home industry, families tended their dead. The local carpenter prepared a box, the body was washed and dressed by family or neighbors, other community members dug the grave and the vigil for the deceased took place in the home’s parlor.
Now we experience the ‘medicalization’ and conveyor belt style of death. People most often die in hospital, are picked up by funeral home staff and are directly cremated or embalmed, with makeup, hair and visitation arranged by the funeral home. The costs are much higher than most would expect for these services and is a catalyst for change in the caring for our dead. We are protected from the realness of death. Our culture has distanced us from the process of death. It has pushed death away isolating us from the feelings and ritual, the rite of passage of caring for our deceased loved ones.
WHY TAKE PART IN A DEATH CAFE
It is the understanding of the need for personal rites of passage that spur people like Life-Cycle Celebrants® Linda Stuart and Julie Keon in Ontario and Holly Pruett in Oregon, to start a dialogue by facilitating Death Cafés. As Linda Stuart says, “I host Death Cafés because I believe that as humans, we can’t come close to understanding the meaning of life without first acknowledging the reality of death.” Julie Keon started death cafes in her area five years ago. She shared the following: “I have never shied away from the topic of death and since I love cake, it seemed like the perfect marriage. I have been facilitating death cafes since 2014 and continue to do so because it is important. We are all going to die so why not create a safe, non-judgmental space for people to come together and discuss this shared human experience. The cake is almost as important as the conversation so I make sure there is a selection of homemade treats that everyone can enjoy.”
Death Café and host/facilitators see people as precious and special beings that should be celebrated. They provide a service by supplying a place to discuss an emotional subject. Anyone who participates makes an investment in their own personal growth. Talking about death helps families become more comfortable and less anxious about the future.
Our culture is changing. One song that comes to mind by Rob Thomas is called “One Less Day”. The lyrics: “So I drink and love and whisper all the things I know are right. Someday, I will leave this world but maybe not tonight. I’m not afraid of getting older. I’m one less day from dying young.” It is an ode to life that emphasizes that every day we get to live is a privilege denied to many. Some people attend Death Cafés because they are curious or perhaps seeking answers. As Jon Underwood said, “The only answers that you can find out at Death Café are your own.”
People attend Death Cafés for various reasons. Some are curious, intrigued with the concept, want to face their own mortality or a loved one’s, looking for a comfortable place to talk about death or just cherish the idea of being alive. There is an air of expectancy amongst attendees whether they have never been or return regularly. Every Death Café is different and has a life of its own.
WHAT WE DISCOVER
I first took part in a Death Café in my city back in April 2014. Media representatives attended and many of us were interviewed and asked about our reasons for attending and what our evaluations of the event were. I was interested because the subject matter was one that I was very used to talking about. I had experienced loss many times in my life and had come to terms with death and dying in my work as both a Life Underwriter and later as a Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant® specializing in creating and officiating personalized meaningful ceremonies. If I could describe my Death Café experience in one word it would be “liberating”. It was awesome to see stigma about our own mortality fall away as people in the room became more comfortable. It was easy to see that the host/facilitator had the qualities required to sponsor and lead the event. She had enthusiasm when she talked about death, high ethical standards and great organizational skills. The ritual of having tea and cake was a welcome addition to the evening as attendees obviously enjoyed the many informal yet organized topic chats about death and dying taking place at various tables throughout the home.
Talking about death enables us to embrace our lives. It is wonderful to be able to talk openly in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere of intimate exploration sharing different perspectives.
WHAT IT IS LIKE
It felt like I was breaking a social taboo – people just do not sit around talking about death. The normal reaction of many adult children when their parents want to talk about their inevitable demise is that they don’t want to talk about it. Think fingers in ears and chanting lalalala! When my own parents brought up the subject as they were making their wills, my siblings and I were asked what items we each wanted. My initial response was “I just want you to live.”
I grew up in a home where my dad joked fairly frequently about death. Every time we drove by a cemetery, he would say “do you know why there is a fence around the grave yard?” followed quickly by the punch line “people are just dying to get in there!” I have always loved a sense of humour around difficult topics and this cartoon analogy using the cracks in a sidewalk representing life and death makes me think and laugh:
Yes, there is laughter and there is reflection on how to live and what to do with the time we have left. Humour helps the conversation. The Death Cafés are a surprisingly fulfilling way to remove barriers, reduce taboo and inspire mindfulness about living a fulfilling life rather than just existing before the final curtain. People are hungry to talk about death. They are hungry for relevance midst the secrecy, myths and fallacies that surround death and dying. People struggle with the writing of their wills, and can’t wrap their heads around nonexistence. Death Cafés are becoming an avant garde tradition ensuring safe places to speak the unspeakable. Perhaps in time, our culture will learn to caress death and we will live our best lives, taking chances and dreaming dreams.
CUP OF LIFE AND DEATH
To help with mindfulness and appreciation of every day of life as well as stay aware of the fact that we will all experience death, we can learn from the Tibetans. They use the cup of life and death ritual. It is a custom that we can each easily do. Every night before going to sleep, turn your cup upside down as a symbol of not only the end of the day but also the end of one’s life. When we wake up in the morning we can affirm that we are alive, we can see, we can hear and we can feel. Then when we turn our cup right side up, we can affirm that just like the new day, our new life begins, and we are ready to really live.
Interested in attending a Death Café near you?
Feel free to google Death Café in your area where one may be taking place, or reach out to Celebrant Foundation & Institute to assist you in contacting a Death Café Facilitator Celebrant near you at celebrantinstitute.org