What is a Death Café and Why Does It Matter?

​By Hailey Krychman

When my grandfather died nearly ten years ago, my family and friends said, “death is a part of life.” It’s a saying I’m sure many of us have heard. However, over time, I noticed there is an underlying falseness to this because death is not an active part of our lives. We never discuss how we feel about death unless we are in mourning. We do not confront our own mortality until we are facing a coffin. We don’t often have deep, personal conversations about death in the midst of our daily lives, but now we can – at a Death Café.

In 2011, Jon Underwood and his mother, Sue Barsky Reid, organized the first non-profit Death Café in the United Kingdom in order to confront the discomfort we feel when talking about death. He was inspired by the realization that standard conversations about death are “outsourced” to medical professionals or funeral home workers – those who are accustomed to talking about it. Based on the Swiss “Café Mortel” movement and the work of Bernard Crettaz, Underwood’s Death Cafés offer tea, cake, and meaningful questions about our experiences (or lack thereof) of death. Addressing their feelings about death helps participants make the best of their finite lives.

On March 6th, the Studio for Media Activism and Critical Thought at Ryerson University is organizing a Death Café at the Eaton Lecture Hall ((RCC 202 80 Gould ST) with a more political angle than the cafe events outlined by Underwood. Participants will explore what death can teach us about non-normative bodies. For event organizer and moderator Dr. Eliza Chandler, it is important to explore “community mobilizations with death.” This Death Café will not only include discussions of disability and death, but participants will also be engaging in discussions about how death impacts Black and Indigenous communities as well.

Chandler focuses on disability art, particularly the connection between disability and vitality. While at a disability arts conference in the United Kingdom, she and Dr. Esther Ignagni, also a moderator for the upcoming event, went to their first Death Café. She was excited to have a forum to discuss disability and death, especially since she, like many others, found she had difficulty talking about it elsewhere. Chandler and Ignagni decided to bring the Death Café format back to Canada to continue their intersectional discussions of death.

Chandler explained that some traditional Death Café questions will be incorporated into the Studio’s event (an example: how many times a week do you think about death?). There will also be other questions related to cultural backgrounds and media practices. For example, participants will be addressing current representations of death in media, and how these can be improved. The Death Café will also explore how death comes up in the participants’ respective cultural and activist practices.

Through her experiences at previous events, Chandler understands the appeal of people coming together to discuss death: “Sometimes it’s nice to talk about death with people who aren’t as personally invested as your partner or family might be.” As someone who has never engaged that deeply with strangers, I am curious to see how I will feel after attending the event.

Jon Underwood, the man who dedicated much of his life encouraging deep discussions about death, died unexpectedly last year. His legacy is this Death Café movement that has spread around the world, creating safe and culturally specific spaces for those who attend.

Hailey Krychman is currently pursuing a Master of Arts degree in Media Production at Ryerson University.

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