I walked to the Death Café on a cold Saturday afternoon in February. The grey, cloudy sky threatened snow. Ganges streets seemed deserted. I could hear my own footsteps. I felt edgy.
Seemed about right.
Death, after all, is a word people speak quietly, often solemnly. Tears in their eyes and fear in their hearts. And death is the topic people discuss at the Death Café.
I took a deep breath, opened the doors of ArtSpring, where Salt Spring’s Death Cafés are held, and stepped into the bright light of the lobby. I loosened my scarf and got a cup of coffee and a cookie. Sustenance for the road ahead.
But after listening to many of the two dozen other people who had gathered in a circle of chairs, I realized how important the road’s end is to us humans. Important, and mysterious. Death Cafés may not solve that mystery, but they can encourage discussion about what has been called “the last taboo.” They are, in fact, directed discussion groups, rather than grief counselling or support sessions.
Bernard Cretazz, a Swiss sociologist and anthropologist, organized the first Death Café in 2004 to try to break the “tyrannical secrecy” surrounding the topic of death. Britisher Jon Underwood and his mother, psychotherapist Sue Barsky Reid, were inspired by Cretazz and held the first Death Café in the UK in September 2011. They went on to produce a guide to running a Death Café, as well as a website, deathCafé.com, with a stated goal of trying “to increase an awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” Since September 2011, Death Cafés have been held in 42 countries.
Anna Haltrecht, who teaches Feldenkrais, Pilates and dance, is the organizer behind Salt Spring’s Death Cafés. Three years ago, as dance outreach co-ordinator for Made in BC, she brought Highgate, a performance by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, who creates hybrid dance-theatre, to ArtSpring. Billed as “a morbid romp through Victorian funerary culture,” Highgate had five dancer-actors play out personal and collective grief.
Still inspired by Highgate, Haltrecht learned about the Death Café concept from Salt Spring Hospice administrator Rob Lowrie. On Nov. 8, 2014, she organized a cemetery walk at Central led by Dave Phillips, and held a Death Café at ArtSpring, which helps sponsor and support the cafés by providing free space and refreshments.
“After I created the first one, I knew I couldn’t stop,” said Haltrecht.
She began developing the idea, teaming up with Salt Spring Hospice to get some great facilitators.
For February’s Death Café, co-facilitators Judith Avery and Jaya-Lynda Cole from Salt Spring Hospice were onboard to guide the discussion.
“This is trying to normalize the whole process,” explained Cole.
“When my grandfather was dying,” added Avery, “he died at home. As a little kid, I can remember crawling under the casket. Now death is sometimes like it’s coming from way out in left field.”
Cole went on to outline Death Café guidelines for participants.
“The purpose is not counselling. We encourage you to share your thoughts and feelings about death. What is said here stays here, in that we ask people to keep names confidential. Give people space to share completely. Be respectful and don’t interrupt. We also discourage cross talk. Honour other people’s sharing. We’re all different.”
Then Cole opened the discussion, asking people to talk about what brought them to the café.
Some participants spoke about preparing for the end of life, and the loss of a loved one. Several parents discussed the difficulty of getting their adult children to accept and prepare for the eventual loss of their mothers and fathers. A woman talked about her meditation technique that is like a death rehearsal, imagining herself travelling down a river, sometimes hitting obstacles. A man spoke of recent health issues, after a lifetime of enjoying good health, which suddenly made him realize he was old, and gave him a timeline to deal with death.
A moving recollection of a daughter’s death by a father who felt he saw her soul leave her body left the room in total silence for several minutes.
“Thank-you for being vulnerable,” said Cole.
Those who wish to visit a Death Café have two upcoming opportunities. There will be Death Cafés at ArtSpring on March 25 and April 29 from 2 to 4 p.m. The Death Café on April 29 will be preceded by a cemetery walk in St. Mark’s Cemetery on Baker Road at 1 p.m. Dave Phillips will tell the stories of the people buried there. Following the walk, the Death Café will be held at ArtSpring, which will be open at 2 p.m. for folks to gather, in case the walk runs a bit late.
The April date is personally important to Haltrecht. It is also International Dance Day, and husband Ron Brunette died on April 28, 1996.
“It is a way for me to honour the anniversary of the death of my loved one, as well as for everyone to honour those who have gone before,” explained Haltrecht, “and also to commemorate dance, to open themselves up to the flow of life and death.”