BY: JESSICA BEUKER
It’s a rainy Wednesday evening and in the far west end of Toronto, where things are quiet and slow, the Belljar Cafe is buzzing as people begin to gather in the corner of the shop. The lights are dim and a group of about 14 people have gathered tightly around four small tables. I walk in, order a cup of coffee and proceed to the tables where everyone else is chatting excitedly. I pick a seat at the end of a bench and sit quietly and nervously until the host makes the announcement: “Welcome to the Death Cafe.”
The words Death Cafe bring about many different thoughts and reactions. My friends nervously exclaimed, “what the hell is that?” upon hearing I would attend one. Even I, after stumbling across the idea online, had some pretty big misconceptions. Death Cafe? I thought. Do goths and punks gather in the darkness and celebrate death? Is this a forum for people who want to die? Perhaps this is a support group for people with terminal illnesses. Within the first five minutes in the Death Cafe I would discover that I was wrong on all accounts.
We break off into groups of three and four in order to facilitate a focused and meaningful conversation. I speak first. I keep it short, and explain that I had heard about the event online and was curious about the smaller and deeper details of it. Next to speak is an older man—this is his second Death Cafe and he enjoys his time at them. He tells a story of his “countdown”: With each passing day the man became more aware of the fact that he would one day die. He didn’t like the uncertainty and unpredictability that came with waiting for death. He didn’t want to let death control him or scare him anymore. So, he picked a date at random and said, ‘this is the day I am going to die,’ and with that in mind, he started really living.
Death Cafes are open to any person, of any age. The concept of a Death Cafe was first introduced in 2011 by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid and was held in London. They have spread quickly across Europe, Australasia and North America. And on January 14, 2015, psychotherapist and soon-to-be Thanatologist, Linda Hochstetetler—with the intent to change the way Canadians approach death—hosted her first one.
Death is a very taboo topic and yet is a natural part of life. If there is one thing we can count on in this world, it is that we will all, at some point or another, die. Despite this fact, death is a subject that gets little attention in the way of social discussion. Bring up death at the dinner table, and you’re likely to be labeled as morbid. “People are afraid to admit to themselves that they are dying,” says Hochstetetler. “They refuse to talk to others about others’ deaths, because maybe someone will ask them about their own fear of death.” Instead of ever having an honest discussion about a deep and complex topic, we opt instead to say, “I’m so sorry,” when we hear of someone’s passing and then drop it completely. Asking how a person died is completely off the table; it is deemed offensive. Death is something that happens everyday, and yet we have not even begun to even try to normalize it within our society. “Culturally, we have given birth and death over to medical professionals who want to do it perfectly,” says Hochstetetler. “But both are not about perfection. Birth is messy, but doesn’t have to be traumatic. Death can be the same, if we learn to accept it. It loses its trauma and fear if we accept that it is everyone’s fate one day.”
As I took the last sip of my first cup of coffee, Linda stood up and asked if we would all switch tables and sit with a new group of people. The hour had flown by and I had already gained some new insights into others’ thoughts and fears on death. I refilled my coffee and sat at a new table, with three other women. One woman was in her sixties and she had recently gone back to school to finish her undergraduate degree. This baffled me in the best way—most people I know see age as a limitation, their lives as a ticking clock. This woman didn’t count her time with numbers, but with experiences. She still had no idea what she wanted to do for a living and that didn’t stress her out at all. She talked of how she likes to spend her money travelling rather than saving for the future. Of her eventual death she quipped, “you can’t take it with ya.”
Death Cafes that are popping up around the world are being met with much enthusiasm, yet are still only being attended by a small number of people. Hochstetetler will continue to host them and thinks that the impact will extend much further than just the people who attend. “There will only ever be a small number of persons attending Death Cafes, but their reach will be much further. Many people will never set foot in a Death Cafe, but maybe one of their friends or family members will, and then talk to them about it. I believe that after you talk about something hard in a safe place, you can begin to think about doing it in a harder place.” Hochstetetler sits in her group of four and explains how she still has some important things to say to her 79-year-old father, but hasn’t yet. She says that talking about these things with other people in a safe and comfortable setting, will give her the strength she needs to finally say them to her father.
The candles have burnt down to small stumps, the tables are littered with empty coffee cups and the chatter has elevated greatly since everyone arrived over two hours ago. The Death Cafe has ended and people slowly begin to put on their coats; slowly, because no one wants the conversations to stop. “I hope that Death Cafes bring death into everyday conversation. There is such richness in being able to talk about death as a natural part of life for people of all ages,” says Hochstetetler. “And some day I hope that Death Cafes will be passé, because we are all so comfortable talking about death that there will be no reason to have a special event to do so.”
I can already tell that the takeaway from tonight will be huge; the positivity in the atmosphere is immeasurable. I wait at the corner for the next streetcar, watching the traffic lights as they change colour. Thinking about death, but also, about life.
Check out Fully Exposed Podcast to learn more about death cafes and the topic of death in general.