Although death is the only guarantee in life, it is a topic that most people shy away from discussing. That is, unless they are among the thousands of people worldwide who have begun attending death cafés.
Death Café is an international movement that began in Europe in 2011. It was founded by British web developer Jon Underwood and his psychotherapist mother Sue Barsky Reid, and evolved from the teachings of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz.
The movement's objective, according to its website, is to increase the awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their finite lives.
Death cafés are informal, non-denominational get-togethers in which participants sip coffee, speak their minds, share their stories, express their fears and ask questions in a respectful and confidential setting. They are not lectures or grief-support groups, but are meant to evoke the philosophical and scientific cafés of Europe.
The death café movement arrived in Winnipeg this past winter under the auspices of the Chesed Shel Emes, the city's venerable and only Jewish funeral home. Rena Boroditsky, the executive director of the Chesed Shel Emes, organized two cafés with the help of a small volunteer committee.
"People need a place to talk about death, to feel heard, to hear others stories and feel they are not alone," Boroditsky says.
Death cafés fill that need.
Winnipeg's inaugural cafés were both held at local synagogues and attracted about 50 participants each. The age range at the cafés was between 18 and 89, with the majority of participants being in their 60s and 70s. Those in attendance were primarily from the Jewish community, although other faith communities were represented as well.
Every religion, of course, has its own rituals related to death and mourning, but the big-picture questions and concerns about the topic are clearly universal.
Boroditsky served as host of the cafés and arranged to have facilitators on hand to guide the conversation if need be. Those conversations covered a broad range of death-related topics, including elderly parents not wanting to plan for their deaths and adult children not wanting to hear their parents' plans for their deaths. Widowhood, the afterlife and the concept of a "good death" were also discussed.
"Many of those who attended the event commented that they left it feeling validated and comforted," Boroditsky says.
Winnipegger Brenda Borzykowski, one of the event organizers, was among those who left the cafés with positive feelings.
"The discussions that I participated in taught me about my own mortality, and it has been helpful to express my thoughts to other people who are similarly interested," she says.
"I thought there wasn't enough discussion about death and that this would be a good vehicle to discuss it," she says. "I think death, in the past, has been a taboo subject and the Death Café gives people an opportunity to discuss it in a non-judgmental environment."
Death cafés are not an attraction for everyone. Many people, young and old alike, prefer not to discuss the inevitability of death until they absolutely have to. Those who are interested in the subject or feel a need to discuss it, however, are likely to find the death cafés fascinating and comforting. They will be pleased to know that Boroditsky and her volunteers already have planned three more death cafés for the coming months.