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This week I had the chance to attend a death café at a downtown restaurant/bar in Ottawa. For those who are not familiar with the concept, a death café is a gathering of people (generally strangers) who come together over tea and cake (or some variation on the theme – in this case, nachos and beer and wine!) to talk about death.

The idea originated with a Swiss anthropologist named Bernard Crettaz, who organized the first café mortel in 2004. The concept was picked up by Londoner Jon Underwood, who organized the first death café at his home in East Hackney in 2011. Since then 4366 Death Cafes in 37 countries (and counting) have been held, all of them loosely based around the idea of talking about all aspects of death and dying while sharing a cup of tea and cake. For further details see http://deathcafe.com/what/#sthash.drED13Sb.dpuf

Why would so many people choose to give up an afternoon or evening to talk about death? While I’m sure the reasons people attend are as individual as the people themselves, it’s safe to say that everyone is drawn to the cafe as a safe place to talk about death – something that, despite its inevitability, is still largely a taboo subject in much of the Western world.

One of the surprising things about the death cafés I’ve attended is the wide variation in the ages of the participants. While I expected to see many people of my own age and stage (at 67, someone who can see the sands of time slipping away with what seems like ever increasing speed!), both events I went to had a surprising number of young people (in their 20s and 30s).

I can’t speak for the motivations of everyone in attendance, as we are generally seated at a table of four or five for the duration of the event, and thus don’t have the chance to get to know everyone at the event. What I can say, from the discussions I’ve been part of, is that everyone has experienced death first hand (a grandmother, mother, sibling, close friend or a serious illness themselves), and they’ve longed for a safe place to talk about the experience.

At my first death cafe (an event with about 45 people),  I sat with a young mother of three who had lost both her parents at a very young age; an 84 year old woman who, though quite fit and hardy, was exploring the options for medical aid in dying (for when the time comes); and a man in his forties who seemed more driven by curiosity and theory than direct experience. And of course, I had lost both my parents and my sister, and was very involved in hospice work.

This week, I was invited to join a table of four people, three of whom I already knew from completely unrelated settings. We needed very little prompting to get us going – merely asking “What brought you to the death cafe today?” was fuel enough for a lively conversation that ranged from becoming involved in the funeral business to losing close family members.

We talked about our fears of death (whether we had them, how we had gotten over them, who we dealt with others’ fears), our hopes for the end of our lives, and how we felt about how society deals with death.

Sometimes we could barely hear each other, as the conversations at the other tables broke into gales of raucous laughter or heated discussions (or both!) I could hardly believe it when the organizer announced that it was 8 p.m. and time for us to go. We had been talking about death non-stop for an hour and a half. And I suspect we could have gone on much longer!

“How was it?” my partner asked, when she picked me up.

“Great,” I said, never quite sure what else to say. The conversations themselves are so fluid and intimate in ways one wouldn’t expect with a group of strangers. And somehow sacred.

When I think about what I love about events like death cafés (or dinners or salons) I think about how refreshing it is to be able to talk about death without having to whisper or worry about someone’s reaction or about being called morbid.

As someone who has volunteered in a hospice for over 15 years, talking about death and dying seems like the most natural thing in the world – and one of the most important. If we don’t talk about death – what it looks like, what we might want at the end of our lives, how we can care for the people we love, how we can change the face of dying in our culture – we remain powerless to influence our deaths.

How will others know what we want, if we can’t talk about it? How will we know what our loved ones want?

As one of my favourite phrases tells us, “Talking about death won’t kill you!”

Let’s talk!

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