Death Cafes offer opportunity to discuss death with coffee and tea

Ellen Newman is in her first year of the two-year Funeral Service Education program at Humber. She cohosted a Death Café in Halton Hills on Feb. 24, to explain issues surrounding death and end-of-life issues. (Photo Matthew Pariselli) Ellen Newman is in her first year of the two-year Funeral Service Education program at Humber. She cohosted a Death Café in Halton Hills on Feb. 24, to explain issues surrounding death and end-of-life issues. (Photo Matthew Pariselli)

Matthew Pariselli
News Reporter

Ellen Newman and Marion Willms are reveling in the aftermath of gathering with a group of strangers to enjoy coffee, tea and cake while discussing death at Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

They said the regularly scheduled Death Café breathed life into their day.

Death Cafés were introduced in 2011 by Jon Underwood, a middle-aged family man based in London, England. The aim of the Cafés is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their lives,” according to the official website.

Newman and Willms met while studying in the Contemplative End of Life Care program at the Toronto Institute of Traditional Medicine. They’re so inspired by the concept of Death Cafés that they’ve decided to launch their own branch in Halton Hills.

Newman, a 50-year-old in her first year of the Funeral Service Education program at Humber College, said Death Cafés are gaining popularity and attracting attention. She said people are interested in talking about death, but their efforts are met with resistance in most circles.

Fast-forward to a chilly Feb. 24 evening when the women hosted their second Death Café in Georgetown’s Devereux House in Halton Hills.

About 20 people registered and 16 braved the cold to attend. As was the case in their first Café in October 2014, the event elicited passionate dialogue.

“We sat in tables of four and there was great conversation. People were surprised that two hours had flown by so quickly and they were still very deep in conversation,” Newman said.“People are uncomfortable talking about death. Having a Death Café is about having a safe place to come and talk about it,” she added.

Willms, a registered nurse who lives in neighbouring Rockwood, said her goal in co-hosting the Halton Hills’ Death Café was to explore a topic that people generally prefer to bury.

“I wanted to do something very practical about opening up the conversation about death in our society, and doing a Death Café is one way to do that,” she said.

One aspect of Death Cafés that Newman is particularly fond of is the variety in discussion that each Café gives rise to. No Death Café is like any other.  

Topics range from end of life care, choices and options that are available regarding death, how to prepare for one’s own death or the death of a loved one, and even the afterlife.

This is one point touched on by Chara Adema, a first-year student in Humber’s Funeral Service Education program who attended a Death Café in Toronto’s Junction area.

“I was surprised by how many people talked about their religion and how their beliefs impacted how they viewed death and the afterlife. Conversation steered to what a funeral is, and what people would want to do at their own funeral one day,” she said.

Since they began in 2011, about 1,500 Death Cafés have been held around the world, Newman said.

The majority of people who attend the Cafés are in their 50s, Newman said, but added that she has been to Cafés with people as young as 19 and as old as 80. However,  she underlined that Death Cafés are not to be confused with bereavement support groups, counselling, or therapy.  

A permanent Death Café has recently opened in London, allowing people to enjoy a beverage or treat and discuss death throughout all hours of the day. Newman predicts it will be very well received and could lead to other permanent Death Cafés opening worldwide.

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