“Mom, you’re SO weird,” my youngest son announced when he heard of my plans to organize and host Toronto’s first Death Café.
At the time he was 20 and stared at me with big eyes and disbelief as if he pictured me dressed goth-style with ultra-pale skin and black lipstick.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “Why would you want to sit around and talk about death with complete strangers?”
I guess this meant he wasn’t going to come.
He was right though. It did sound bizarre. And I didn’t really know how to answer his question. All I knew was this: You know that warm, tingly feeling you get when you first intensely connect with someone and all you want to do is delve deeper? Well, that’s how I felt when I first heard about Death Café.
Death Café is a discussion group, not a grief or support group. Inspired by Bernard Crettaz’s “Café Mortel” in Switzerland, a Death Café provides a safe space to openly discuss one of life’s most significant moments.
The format is simple: People gather. They drink tea and eat cake. They talk about death with other people whom they’ve never met before. Apparently, it’s easier to talk about death with strangers than with people you love.
“People want to talk about death and they want to do it on their terms,” says Jon Underwood, Death Café’s founder. “At Death Café, people have been having fantastic conversations about death.”
Really? Could talking about death actually be fantastic? Comforting, even? I wasn’t sure, but I was going to find out.
With a little help from my friends Cyndy Neilly-Spence, Monica Valitalo and Jake McArthur, Toronto’s first Death Café took place on June 20, 2013.
Twenty-eight participants gathered in small groups to discuss anything and everything to do with death. An eclectic mix of men, women, cultures, faiths, and ages ranging from 20-something to 70-something filled the room. With no formal guidelines (only a few etiquette tips), the groups were free to discuss whatever they desired. The discussions were as varied and unique as the individuals at each table.
Here’s the thing I wasn’t expecting: Laughter. LOTS of laughter. So much, in fact, that at times I couldn’t hear my tablemates.
And then it occurred to me. You can’t talk about death without talking about life. The real magic, I discovered, is that human beings connect on an incredibly deep level while having these types of intimate conversations.
Participants were asked to complete short surveys on their experience.
Here’s what some had to say:
- I may agree this seems a little offbeat, but the experience was joyful, inspiring and welcomed by all of us who participated.
- It brought me joy to know that others seek to make dialogue about death, a part of life.
- Amazing experience – simply by sharing ideas and experiences with others on maybe the one thing we all truly have in common.
- There was more laughter than tears in the room.
Underwood was right. People really were having fantastic conversations at Death Café.
Twelve Death Cafes later, people still ask me “Why?” For me, Death Café is about embracing the time that I have. When I openly explore the reality that death is inevitable, it forces me look at what I want to do with this gift called Life.
I’m not an expert on death, but wouldn’t it be amazing if one day – maybe my last day – I could declare myself an expert on life?
Maybe someday, I’ll even convince my son to come.
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Linda Stuart is a Life-Cycle Celebrant / Ceremony Officiant who specializes in funerals and is located in Toronto, Ontario.
For more information about Death Café, visit www.deathcafe.com.
If you would like to be added to Toronto Death Café’s distribution list, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For further exploration:
Listen here as Linda Stuart and Drew Marshall, host of The Drew Marshall Show, interview Death Café founder, Jon Underwood.