Montreal

McGill's death café 'a safe space' to talk about life and death

Death can be hard to talk about, and for some people it's a topic they don't always feel comfortable bringing up with others. But "death cafés" are trying to change that.

Every month, dozens of McGill University student gather to eat cake, drink tea and talk about death

Amanda Brown, left, and Kit Racette run the McGill Death Café. (Aislinn May/CBC News)

Death can be hard to talk about, and for some people it's a topic they don't always feel comfortable bringing up with others.

But "death cafés" are trying to change that. 

At a death café, people — who are often strangers — come together to eat food, drink tea and talk about death, loss, mortality and even life.

The goal is to let people talk openly without the stigma or taboo.

"It's just a safe space for people to share those thoughts that are otherwise taboo in society … and therefore, by discussing them, hopefully we make the most of our finite lives," said Amanda Brown, the organizer and co-facilitator of the McGill Death Café.

McGill has been hosting the monthly event since October, and its popularity is catching on.

At February's event, about 40 people were packed into a small, brightly lit room on McGill's campus. Most of them were attending for the first time.

Even though death was the topic of the evening, the atmosphere was upbeat and cheerful. People were mingling with one another, chatting and enjoying snacks before the event started. 

Providing an outlet

Brown says death cafes, which first began popping up around the world in 2011, provide an outlet to talk about almost anything.

"We always talk about how amazing it is that it's so different every time. They range from people's personal stories of grief, and dealing with complicated grief with people they maybe didn't have a entirely pleasant relationship with, to immortality and organic burials. Just absolutely everything under the sun," she said. 

Every month, dozens of people gather in this space at McGill University to talk about immortality, death and grief. (Emily Ponak/The McGill Tribune)

Brown first heard about death cafes after struggling with an illness for a few years. She was diagnosed at age 16 with spinal neuralgia, a painful compression of the spinal nerves.  

Brown's mindset changed when she attended a death café in Nova Scotia in 2011. 

"I was kind of forced to face the possibility of my own mortality in a way that a lot of teenagers don't really have to," she said.

"Being able to just talk about all these things that made other people uncomfortable was just such a meaningful experience to me."

Brown said at first it was hard to talk about her experience, but the death café provided an outlet to talk about her experience.

Death cafés usually are cheerful.- Susan Barsky Reid, co-creator of world's first death café

After winning the Mary H. Brown endowment fund from McGill, Brown decided to start a death café on campus. She works with her co-organizer Daniel Almeida and Kit Racette, who runs the sessions. 

Brown said they've had a great response, and often see new people attending each event.

She plans on holding more death cafés throughout the year. 

Movement born in England

The first death café was held in September 2011 in East London, England. It was created and run by Jon Underwood and his mother, Susan Barsky Reid.

Tragedy struck in June 2017, when Underwood died suddenly from acute promyelocytic leukemia, a type of blood cell cancer.

Barsky Reid has not been able to run a death café since her son's death because she finds it too emotional, but she told CBC she's happy to hear that there are cafés popping up as far away as Montreal.

"Death cafés usually are cheerful even though people can be sad. There's something really life affirming about talking about the fact that you're going to die," she said. 

The movement continues to grow. Barsky Reid said thousands of death cafés have been offered around the world, including in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

In Canada, there have been more than 700 death cafés.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aislinn May

Researcher

Aislinn May is a researcher in Montreal. You can contact her by sending an email at aislinn.may@cbc.ca.

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