'Frightening and interesting and mysterious': Winnipeg strangers meet to talk about dying

1 / 4
'Frightening and interesting and mysterious': Winnipeg strangers meet to talk about dying

The appealing thing about talking to a roomful of strangers about death is that to many people, it's unappealing, according to Lyndsay Penner.

"It's scary and weird," said the 28-year-old Winnipegger, seated at a small, circular table in a downtown coffee shop.

"I like to lean into things that are scary and uncomfortable."

Surrounding her in the small café were 30 strangers with nametags, ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-90s, drawn to the spot Wednesday evening to talk about the same thing — death — for different reasons.

Marie-Claire Granger wanted to satisfy curiosity. She hoped to talk about what to expect in the afterlife — not much, in her opinion. She said she's already been to heaven: it's in Belair Forest, about 85 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

One 24-year-old woman was there on a research mission. She was gathering ideas an opera she plans to write about death.

Two feet away from her, John Kos, 81, wanted to hear other people's ideas on hospice and palliative care. He's afraid of suffering, he said, but not dying. He said talking about death is just like writing a will.

"It's time to kind of look at that part of your life, because you are going to come to a place where you die," he said.

"When you go into that, well, it's all kind of frightening and interesting and mysterious, and having some talk about it might be a good idea."

These were the participants in Winnipeg's latest death café, one of several hosted recently across Canada and more than 4,300 held around the globe.

For more than an hour they talked death and dying, over mugs of tea and glasses of wine and cupcakes with little tombstones on top.

Ground rules

So what's a death café?

"It's really very simple," said Dianne Baker, a Winnipeg-based counsellor who helped organize the event. "You come, you drink tea, you eat cake, and you talk about death."

The first official event was held in September 2011, organized by Londoner Jon Underwood and hosted at his home in Hackney, East London, with the help of his mother, a psychotherapist. Underwood had been inspired by a similar movement pioneered elsewhere in Europe by Swiss scholar Bernard Crettaz.

Organizers anywhere can use Underwood's death café branding, as long as they follow a few rules: events must be free and not-for-profit. Conversation can't be intended to lead people to particular actions, conclusions or products.

Baker said she thinks they caught on in part because they explore a subject that's ordinarily taboo.

"I think there is a longing for spaces for people to talk about this subject that — let's face it — all of us are going to go through ourselves, and all of us are going to have times when loved ones experience it, and we want to find ways of being prepared," she said.

Penner's table included a pair of 24-year-old students she'd never met before — one of them was the opera composer — and they made their introductions.

Within an hour, they were digging through an envelope of conversation starters about death and sharing mutual fears about aging, dementia and watching their parents die.

In a set of low-slung armchairs across the room, Vicki Woods, 94, and Barbara Barnett, 72, discussed their own funeral arrangements, which have been in place for years. Woods called Barnett a "sweet young thing." Barnett, a former hospital chaplain, asked Woods what she thought of her own death and where she wanted to die.

For Barnett's part, that's at home, she added.

"Watch people go by, yes," she said. "Make sure the dog doesn't poop on the front lawn."

'It's liberating'

Despite the sombre subject matter the room was full of the buzz of conversation, sometimes punctuated by laughter. Jackie Avent said that's not as surprising as it might seem. She considers herself a happier person for thinking about death.

Avent worked with Baker and a third organizer, Laura Donatelli, to put the event together. The three hadn't met until mutual contacts put them in touch based on their shared interest in talking about dying. 

Donatelli said she started thinking a lot about the subject when her mom died a few years ago. To her, there's a strange relief in talking about it with strangers.

"It's kind of, maybe, like when you go and you're in an airplane or you go to get your hair cut," Donatelli said.

"There's a freedom of just sort of baring your soul to people who you can say really whatever you want [to], because you don't … follow up with them. You don't have to see them day after day after day.

"So I think, in some ways, it's liberating."