Dentists and Death Cafes — AKA my Thursday

I bookended my day yesterday with a morning check-up at the dentist and my first Death Cafe in the afternoon. 

“Um. Yuck. And yuck!” a friend chimed in when I told her about my agenda for an otherwise sunny and splendid weekday. My response of, “Well, we all need regular check-ups and we’re all going to die. What’s the biggie?” was met with an eye roll and a nearly immediate change in the subject.

I wasn’t trying to be flip, really. To be perfectly honest, I was dreading the dentist much more than the death chit chat because I’ve been remiss in flossing and wasn’t looking forward to the hygienist’s tut-tutting. Besides, I didn’t really know what I was getting into with the Death Cafe, so was approaching it with curiosity rather than apprehension. How bad could it be — like all Death Cafes, they promised tea and cake!

Happily, cavity-free but carrying the weight of the flossing admonition, I headed over to a local church basement to talk about all things death.

This gathering was one of a series of Death Cafes organized in Vancouver by Anneke Rees and Tom Esaki. I first heard about the Death Cafe movement through another funeral celebrant friend and was intrigued, but this was my first opportunity to sit in on one. They happen all around the world and you can find one near you at:

There were nearly 50 people gathered in the large basement room, a more diverse collection of people than I had expected: they came from a surprisingly broad range of ages and backgrounds; the majority were women; most came from the neighbourhood. 

Over tea and a slice of carrot cake, we broke into small group circles and began to dig into the subject of death.

One of the design elements of Death Cafes is that they are lightly structured and moderated, so there wasn’t much of a set agenda. Rather, we went around the circle, introducing ourselves and offering up what had drawn us to attend the event. From there, a 90-minute discussion unfolded quite seamlessly.

Some people came at it from an intellectual bent, some from a more emotional place. Some referenced fear or curiosity about their own death, while others were managing the decline or recent passing of a parent or other loved one. A young mother talked about how she hadn’t really feared death until she had children. Another worried about how to broach the topic of end-of-life care among family members who were deeply divided about medical intervention. There were discussions about doctor-assisted death and some wondering about the possibility of the afterlife, among many other questions. 

I was struck by a few things about the discussions: first was the level of openness and interest that people had in exploring the topic, and their willingness to dive into the deep end almost immediately; next was the near-universal experience among attendees that we were having an uncommon conversation about something that should be much more common around our own kitchen tables. 

The Death Cafe wasn’t a grief support group, though I think that many people felt refreshed just to be able to discuss the topic in a frank and open way. Death in our society seems to be mostly relegated to hushed conversations about wills and powers of attorney, or handed off to medical professionals to focus on pain management or quality of life. 

Don’t get me wrong — those are all essential elements of the conversation, but focusing on them exclusively also limits the scope of how we approach death, and our lives leading up to that inevitable end. We don’t need to obsess over it but, surely, we should be talking about it a little more often and bit more richly than most of us do at the moment.

I’m as guilty as the next person of putting off these sorts of conversations. That being said, I think they’re important, like check-ups, so I’m going to try to have them a bit more often so that they don’t seem so daunting.

Today, I headed out for a walk with the pal who’s averse to both dentists and death talk, and she was keen to hear about my experience at the discussion yesterday. I happily shared my thoughts about the chitchat and the carrot cake, and was glad that it had opened the door a tiny crack to expand the conversation more broadly.

I’m off to pick up some floss now. If you’ve ever like to talk about death, feel free to chime in here or look up one your local Death Cafes. The cake is tasty and the conversations are even better!

Photo credit:  Morgan Sessions

Photo credit: Morgan Sessions