Tea, cake and mortality? 'Death cafes' popping up in Canadian cities

In cities across the country, Canadians are getting together in small, intimate groups to relax, enjoy refreshments … and discuss death and dying.

They’re called “death cafes” and they’re springing up across Canada. And while the name may sound rather morbid, proponents of such events say they’re meant to be life-affirming.

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The stated objective of the death cafe is to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

The broader purpose, says Vancouver death cafe organizer Ross Waddell, is to create a place where people freely discuss death and dying — breaking down what he sees as a “cultural fear” of talking about death.

“It opens the door. It opens the conversation. And if people have felt that they hadn’t had a place to talk about it, that can be enough to start with,” he tells CTVNews.ca. “The death cafe seemed like a simple event that could be held to open the conversation to the public.”

Waddell recently co-hosted Vanouver’s very first death cafe in a restaurant near Queen Elizabeth Park. A total of 13 people participated in the event, including Waddell and co-organizer Joan Pham, a palliative care nurse.

The event was advertised as a place “where people come together in a relaxed and safe setting to discuss death, drink tea and eat delicious cake.”

“It went well,” Waddell says, adding that participants filled out evaluation forms after the event wrapped up, with most giving the event “five out of five.”

While relatively new to Canada, death cafes have been around for a couple of years, with the first popping up in Europe in 2011. Based on the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, death cafes are meant to give people an opportunity to discuss death in “an accessible, respectful and confidential space, free of discrimination.”

Waddell stresses that he and Pham made this goal a top priority when organizing their cafe.

“We have no other objectives,” he says. “There’s nothing we want to see people come away with. It’s up to each person to decide what they want from the event.”

Waddell says each of the participants of the Vancouver cafe came from different backgrounds: some worked in the fields of palliative and hospice care; some had recently experienced the death of a family member or loved one; one was facing the “imminent moment” and some just came for the discussion.

During the event, the discussion was broken into two parts: talking about death and talking about how death informs life. Each participant had unique insights to share.

“For some people, they’re dealing with a personal fear, which is, in part, a cultural fear,” he says. “For some, it was about maybe losing the fear, being able to discuss the fear — it’s life-giving. It frees them from something they’ve been holding within, that they can’t talk about.”

Waddell, who does volunteer advocacy work in hospice palliative care, notes while there are many services already available to help individuals and families plan and grieve when facing death, death cafes are different because the discussion doesn’t necessarily occur when death is imminent.

“I think the difference with the death cafe is that it’s an event that’s not (focused) around the event of dying itself. A death cafe is not built around that. You don’t have to be experiencing death at that moment to have a conversation about it.”

Instead they’re meant for anyone who has something they want to say about death, he says. “It could be specific about their own life, it could just be general — to come together to listen as much as to talk, because a lot of the value of being at a death cafe is hearing the stories about other people, as well as sharing your own.”

Waddell believes death cafes may help people better prepare for death, whenever the time comes, noting the cafes may act as a springboard for individuals to speak more freely about the topic.

This can be immensely helpful to families, he says, so that when a death occurs or is approaching, “they’ve already thought through some of the things that they would want for themselves or for the person who is dying.”

The first known death cafe was held in London in 2011. Since then, nearly 100 cafes have been held in Europe, the U.S. and in Canada.

Organizers in Victoria, Calgary and Vancouver have all hosted death cafes, and more are in the works. Organizers in Edmonton have planned that city’s first death cafe for this weekend, while Ottawa will host its first in June. Calgary’s second event — to be held in early May — is already “fully booked.”

“It’s spreading, rapidly all over the world. This is a sign that people want to talk about this,” Waddell says, noting that nearly all cultures have various taboos around the discussion of death.

“I think it’s going to open up our whole cultural understanding of death and dying.”


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