Tea, cake and talk of death

Artwork by Charissa Leung.

It’s 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and I find myself snacking on cinnamon pound cake and sipping tea, chatting with strangers on the inevitable reality that is death.

What might seem an unusual pastime is a common sight to those familiar with pop-up Death Cafes: they offer an inclusive and safe space for people to come together and discuss death, with the aim of combatting the taboo surrounding it and “helping people make the most of their [finite] lives.” Comforts of tea, cake and other refreshments ease conversation along.  

The dimly lit party room hosting the event has a surprisingly light mood to it; there are ten or so women milling about and making conversation. I’m told cafes are usually populated by more women than men, by virtue of our lacked stoical nature and increased exposure to death as caregivers. Still, I’m surprised to see the only man in the room is the organizer’s father, who waves to us as he drops off a kettle for the tea.

I’ll admit that I half-expected to walk into a sort of death-con, complete with themed gothic décor — but I was relieved to find no styrofoam coffins or dangling plastic skulls in sight.

We start with introductions: one woman is a self-proclaimed “death enthusiast,” another has suffered loss and is looking for meaning. One is a college professor teaching a course on death and another hopes to become a funeral director post-graduation. But many, like me, decided to attend out of curiosity; perhaps intrigued by the title of the Facebook event page: “Talking about death won’t kill you.”

As we settle into smaller groups, we’re handed slips of paper with conversation starters. Each of us takes turns flipping them over and reading the questions aloud: Do you believe in something after death? Have you ever seen a person take their last breath? What is a “dignified” death? What is “dying”?

When the grad student seated across from me recounts the story of her miscarriage, the air around us grows still, the heaviness of it palpable. A similar tension would build and dissipate multiple times before the evening was over. Other times we’re moved to laughter, as we discuss the severity of terminal illness and I absentmindedly succumb to my dry humour, remarking that technically, we’re all terminally ill.

In just the span of an hour, I’d learn these women’s stories of how immense loss and an awareness of death had shaped their perspectives on life. There were unfiltered, raw conversations on everything from belief in higher energies and reincarnation, to the commercialization of death and dealing with grief. To say the least, the experience was a unique one- strangers engaged in intimate philosophical debate while unreservedly sharing thoughts, vulnerabilities and fears on a subject taboo as death.

As the evening wore on, I found it ironic that a lot of the questions, and much of the discussion itself, centred around life and what it meant to be alive- we shared thoughts on bucket lists, legacies and how we’d like to be remembered. Essentially, we were asking ourselves this: how had an awareness of death shaped our everyday?

Technically, we’re all terminally ill.

Kayla Moryoussef, the project manager for Death Cafes run through the Home Hospice Association, told me that talk of life and death should be fluid and interchangeable, especially because talking about death “re-affirms to people what living means.” Often at Death Cafes, mention of one does not exist without the other.

“When it comes to death and dying, we’re really talking about life and living,” she said. “Really, life and death are intertwined.”

Unique to this approach is that it frames death not as the depressing ordeal we’ve made it out to be, but rather as a celebration of life; an acknowledgement of its part in Rafiki’s grander “Circle of Life.” It’s certainly a refreshing take.

In an attempt to evade the inevitable, we’ve outsourced death to the likes of funeral homes, hospital wards and palliative care centres — out of sight, out of mind. Billions in research have gone towards concocting anti-aging creams to convince us that wrinkles, daresay signs of aging itself, are a thing of the past. And modern scientific and healthcare advancements make it easier to ignore death for longer — possibly even forever.

I asked Moryoussef what she thought was the biggest factor behind society’s ingrained fear of death. She pauses for a moment, herself lost in thought, before remarking on our feared “loss of control.”

She explained that we lead our lives with the belief of free will until the moment death arrives. We have no control over when and where it will happen, and that loss of power in dying is compounded by the fear and uncertainty of the unknown. To us, death is messy and unpredictable, striking at times we don’t expect it to and for people we aren’t ready to leave.

Whatever the multitude of reasons behind our fear, she insists normalizing death as a topic of conversation is the only way to confront it.

“We need to be having these conversations around the dinner table, over a cup of coffee, around the corner. Nobody is exempt from dying, and we need to be talking about it.”

Immortality is best suited for fictitious Greek gods on Mount Olympus, not us. Death will sooner or later make its way to our doorsteps, knocking — being cognizant of the fact isn’t morbidity, but reality.