Illustrative gif of three coffee cups

Illustrations by Marley Allen-Ash

What death cafés are like and why Canada needs them

Dying has a reputation for being, well, morbid. Could talking it over with a bunch of strangers change that?

For better or for worse—but probably for worse—I hail from one of those conventional WASPy families that does not talk about death. Ever. In fact, we don’t even cry. (If you absolutely must, you go to the bathroom and turn on the taps.) So when I was invited to attend a death café with a group of strangers, my initial thought was that I should definitely pretend to be too busy. My second thought? That my first one was a big red flag—a fear I needed to face.

Luckily, there’s wine at The Bluebird Bar in Toronto’s West End, where social worker Linda Hochstetler hosts more than two dozen people—some regulars and some newbies, like me—so they can talk about death and dying. It won’t be gloomy, she promised me beforehand. “People aren’t used to talking about death and finding things joyous or funny, in addition to feeling sadness and longing,” said Hochstetler. “We need to not be prescriptive and assume death is only one way.”

Challenging death’s bad rap as dark and taboo was the mandate of Jon Underwood, founder of the Death Café movement. In 2011, Underwood organized a salon-style discussion in his London, UK, home where people could talk frankly about death over tea and cake. The movement gathered steam globally, especially in Australia and Canada, and more than 8,000 Death Cafés have since taken place.

In 2017, as if he somehow knew it was coming all along, Underwood died suddenly, at the age of 44, from a brain haemorrhage. If that automatically seems like a sad story—if you’re like me and don’t ever want to think about brain haemorrhages—you might need the café more than you think.

Illustration of two people talking over a cup of coffee

I wasn’t quite sure what or who to expect, and although the mourning and terminally ill disproportionally hogged my pre-café imaginings, it turned out I was very wrong. At the Toronto meeting I attended, the group skewed young and female. I’m being deliberately vague here—guests are offered anonymity in this safe space—but about half of this death café’s attendees worked in and around death, in health care, long-term care, funeral homes or hospices. They seemed to be seeking a space they didn’t have at work to unload their feelings, good and bad.

The other half, though similarly lacking outlets for expression, just wanted to talk about everything from death in their families to television’s ridiculously high CPR success rate to what happens to your Facebook page if you die and how you can totally be buried in a mushroom suit now, if you’re so inclined. The mood oscillated between gloomy and comical, which made for a surprisingly gratifying conversation that up until an hour prior I’d have felt guilty for relishing.

“There’s a real stigma in enjoying talking about death,” says Hochstetler. After a lifetime of conditioning in the other direction, chatting so casually about the topic—and with total strangers, no less—is indeed a surreal experience of instant human connection. But as Hochstetler points out, “With strangers, people are able to step away from their own emotionality and outside of the pre-set mode that limits them.” People are often able to say things they’d never say to their families, which then has the ironic effect of letting them say it to their families after all, she continues. “Sometimes you need to be cracked open.”

Going to my first death café wasn’t easy or comfortable, and I’ll admit I might have even teared up for a minute outside of my bathtub that evening. But the world didn’t end, nobody died (ha!), and I really did feel just a little bit cracked open. So when the chatty Uber driver asked me how my night had gone, I didn’t say “fine, thanks” and nothing else. Instead, I told him I’d been to a death café. He looked first puzzled and then curious and it was all a little bit awkward, but I kept talking just the same, no matter how uncomfortable it felt.

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