The ring-shaped cake on the table was called, fittingly, Death By Chocolate.
“I thought it was very apropos,” quipped 44-year-old funeral director Monica Valitalo, laying the dark chocolate Bundt cake alongside a medley of pastries, herbal teas and a party-sized coffee urn.
This was, after all, Toronto’s first Death Café – part of a growing “social franchise” around the world that brings strangers together to nibble on treats, enjoy a hot brew and chitchat about the eventuality of our demise. Volunteer Death Café facilitators book private spaces at restaurants, coffee shops, libraries and funeral parlours. Some host the events in their living rooms. In a society that’s often too squeamish to bring up mortality, Death Café’s mandate is to normalize that dialogue.
“We live in a death-phobic culture. In the spirit of breaking bread and sharing, Death Café is a safe, non-judgmental environment for people to talk openly about things they were afraid to ask,” explained Valitalo, who co-hosted the downtown Toronto reception last week.
Death Café is an acknowledgment of mortality’s role in helping us prioritize things, explained Jon Underwood, the British “dioneer” who devised the core model for Death Café in 2011, having hosted the first get-together in his basement dining room that fall.
“If you recognize that something is finite, it’s more valuable,” the 40-year-old Web developer said from East London. “It’s a way of saying, ‘What’s really important to you?’ It puts the end of your life into focus.”
Intermingling light snacking with such heavy subject matter might not sound so palatable, but Death Cafés have arisen within the last two years all over the U.K. and in Italy, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia and in more than 40 cities in the U.S. Canadian Death Cafés have sprung up in Ottawa, Calgary, Victoria and Vancouver.
“I’ve been turning people away, actually. We had too many coming,” noted Linda Stuart, the 47-year-old certified life-cycle celebrant who spearheaded the Toronto gathering.
Jenn Gruden, a writer, contributed a box of rainbow-sprinkle cookies. She’s familiar with bereavement.
Her infant daughter, Emily, died four days after birth in 2004. The loss, she realized, isn’t something many young mothers have experienced first-hand due to modern medicine. She doesn’t talk about it often.
After the tragedy, Gruden grew interested in thanatology – the scientific study of death. Sharing her fascination with death among friends, though, is a tricky matter.
“A lot of people don’t want to talk about it, so starting a conversation with them might be weird,” she said. “It’s a bit dark for them.”
Not so at Death Café. The anything-goes chatter at her table lasted two hours.
Discussions around the room covered everything from funeral preparation and signs from “the other side” to bioethics questions around organ donation. A suicide-prevention trainer spoke of losing a friend who recently took his own life. Another participant confessed she fears dying alone.
But don’t mistake this for grief counselling. Death Café is a casual social function, not a support group. It’s for relaxing, answering questions and filling tummies. The event drew a mix of hospice volunteers, writers, artists, psychics and curious death-industry professionals.
Laurie Prince wanted to know how to perish in an eco-conscious way. Her family wasn’t sure, so she sought answers at Death Café.
Diane Holmlund, across from her, offered a thought about natural funerals. When the 59-year-old chaplain’s best friend died in 2004, she said, the community didn’t embalm her; a friend built her a coffin in the shape of canoe and set it alight.
Those who swear by the gatherings call them life-affirming, not morbid.
Holmlund, whose work as a hospice chaplain puts her close to the terminally ill, enjoyed “bringing death out of the closet.”
“It made me feel lighter,” she said. “I needed to lighten up about death.”