So, what do you think of as you are driving to your first Death Café? Well, I can only speak for myself. For me, I started thinking about death, of course.
When I arrived at the first Death Café at Radiance Gifts in Winnipeg, I was greeted by a bouquet of black roses and Tiffany, our friendly facilitator (who used to be a palliative nurse). I was joined by three other women who were also interested in sharing their stories and talking about death and dying. The table was set with skulls, a raven and a beautiful tealight candle. The kettle was on and the smell of cupcakes was in the air. I was intrigued, curious and anxious to get started.
Before I go into the actual details of how the evening went, I wanted to share what I was thinking of as I drove to my first Death Café. I was trying to imagine how the two-hour meeting would go. I started thinking of many of the defining or significant death-related events in my life that have helped shape me and help me learn about the meaning of death (and life!). I have been to a few funerals in my lifetime. Some have been more memorable than others. Some have left a lasting impression. Some of my most memorable death-related events haven’t even been funeral-related. Before I get to my Death Cafe experience, I’d like to share a few of those other experiences here.
My first significant experience with death was when I went to a young man’s funeral when I was about 15. He was an acquaintance of mine, and he was a couple of years older. He had died suddenly in an accident. This was the first funeral I had attended and I went with my friends. As we went through the viewing line, I remember seeing his body lying in the casket. For some reason, I decided to place my hand on his hand as a kind and loving gesture. To my surprise and horror, his hand was so cold, hard and lifeless. I was not prepared for that. I was shocked and it haunted me for a long time. I still remember that image and feeling to this day.
Another death-defining moment was when my brother Craig died in 2005. I had to travel by plane to the town where he and my mom were living (from Winnipeg to Gravenhurst). By the time I got there, my mother and I had decided not to see his body. What I did see was his clothes, hat, belt, and wallet. It was a surreal feeling to know this is what he was wearing on the day he collapsed on the sidewalk on his way to the store and I’d never see him again. I had to take charge of the arrangements as my mother couldn’t do it. We decided to cremate him. I was in charge of carrying his ashes from the car to my mom’s apartment. This was another defining moment. To realize my brother’s body had been reduced to ashes and I was carrying him in my arms. To understand the true meaning of how life is so precious, and can be gone in an instant. I went to the United Church and they helped me put together a service for him. It was a Divine experience for me and I felt it was my duty and obligation to send my brother Craig off with a beautiful service.
The first time I saw the devastating effects of grief on my children (in a big way) was when their guinea pig died. I remember laying in our bed, with one on child on each side of me, under the covers. They were both crying and feeling absolutely devastated. We were supposed to go to swimming lessons that night, but I could not see them focusing on their lessons. We decided to stay home and cry and cuddle in bed instead. We had a little backyard ceremony the next day and buried the guinea pig in the backyard. It was my children’s first real experience with death and loss.
My most significant death-related experience was when I was present when my mother-in-law (who died of pancreatic cancer) took her last breath. Although it was a sad time for us, her passing was peaceful. Her son (my husband) was also there. For me, it was a very spiritual experience. It is probably because she was a very spiritual person. She was a devote Catholic, and she held the rosary in her hand up until her last breath. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and pure love come over me the moment she died. I am forever grateful to have been there with her and my husband in that last moment of her life here on earth.
Back to my Death Café experience.
We took turns going around the table sharing what brought us to the Death Café. We all had different reasons for coming. My main reason was because I am a specialist in aging, and death and dying are important aspects of my work. I am also curious about exploring spirituality. I want to know how others view death and dying and I want to expand my understanding about the subject.
The conversation flowed easily. I learned a lot and shared my thoughts. I felt sad for those who were actively grieving, or anticipating losses due to death. We even had a few laughs, which helped us lighten up. Some funny funeral stories were told. Yes, I said funny. It comforted me.
On the evaluation form, we were asked to describe our experience in three words. I wrote: Interesting, Stimulating and Draining. Interesting isn’t really even the right word here. It was more than interesting. It was eye-opening, surprising and thought-provoking.
The discussions were stimulating. For example, we talked about “post-mortem photography”, personalizing white cremation urns with crayons, and recording burial services with a smartphone so others who can’t attend the service can get closure. We talked a lot about funerals and spirits. Reiki even made it into the conversation.
We talked about different ways the deceased are handled. There are many traditions, and there are many new ways, too. Some people are buried, some are cremated. We talked about organic burial pods that turn into trees, Viking funerals (here’s a video I found that I must warn you has some swear words!). We talked about the billion-dollar funeral industry and how some people are moving towards going green. I also learned how the Chapel Lawn Memorial Gardens and Funeral Home has a very lenient policy regarding urn options (like having the ashes put into a Ukrainian vase with a sugar bowl lid on top).
The draining part for me was listening to all the sad stories that were told of loss and grief. Three of us had lost a brother. Many of us had lost other relatives like grandparents and parents. Empathizing with people seems to come too easily for me. I guess it’s because I am a social worker and trained therapist. I tended to want to help those who were hurting. My heart went out to them.
I used to be deathly afraid of death – that is, my own death. I learned that is/was my ego that fears death. I don’t feel that way so much anymore. What changed me? I watched a TedTalk video that said it’s irrational to fear death. I also had a beautiful first-hand encounter with the death of my mother-in-law. I am living my life to the fullest now, as I know my days on earth are limited. I am comforted knowing and believing my legacy and spirit will live on.
As far as the Death Cafe goes, I enjoyed the cake and refreshments. I had blueberry herbal tea and I think Tiffany was trying to kill us – Death By Chocolate! The chocolate cupcake was divine and I even tried one of the mini vanilla cupcakes. Yummy! (Cake and tea are mandatory for Death Cafes).
As takeaways, we each received a pen, a tealight candle and a Radiance Gifts bookmark. I particularly enjoyed the “selenite” crystal candleholder in the centre of the table. It was very angelic. I just may have to get myself one.
I made sure to join the Death Café Winnipeg Facebook group. I am looking forward to having more stimulating and interesting discussions.
If you are interested in attending a Death Café, please consider joining the Facebook group and I hope you get out to one. It will do your body, mind and soul good.
Angela G. Gentile, MSW RSW
Specialist in Aging
Edited to reflect corrections: Tiffany used to be a palliative nurse, and it was Chapel Lawn who has the lenient policy on urns, not Neil Bardal.