It’s an average Monday night in Revelstoke. The dim streetlights on Second Avenue illuminate a passing glistening snowflake. Seated in a circle at Dose Café, 12 complete strangers are sharing conversation. The topic is death.
Tonight the oldest person here is over seventy. The youngest is in their teens.
There are atheists present. Some Christians. A Jew. Tears are shed. People hug. We’re at a Death Café.
Some of the topics being discussed tonight are: what makes a good death? What is it like to die? How would one like to die? What is the proper way to act in a cemetery? And how can one act as a role model for others when experiencing grief.
Surprisingly, more than anything else, though the subject matter is heavy, the participants laugh. It’s an affirmation of their own life in the face of mortality.
Is death funny? Not at all, says Theresa Hamilton, a death midwife who organizes the Death Café locally at Dose on the last Monday of every month, but far more than having any of their questions answered about their own mortality, the afterlife or their own family members deaths, participants, Hamilton says, leave appreciating the experience of life.
“I don’t think people’s views of death necessarily change after attending a Death Café,” says Hamilton before the event. “But definitely their views on life. They do.”
Over the course of the evening Hamilton moderates the discussion, but does not lead. The flow is organic, and all part of what she is trained to do.
People share their own experiences. They talk about their travels. About family members they’ve lost. The way those family members died. How they cope. What to say to someone who has experienced a loss.
“I would like a painful death over an embarrassing one,” says one of the participants, provoking laughter.
But a Death Café is not unique to our little town at all.
The first one was held in London, England, in 2011, and according to the non-profit societies who started the movement’s website, to date, there have been 5736 Death Café’s, held in 52 countries, in as distant locales as Thailand and Chile.
Locally, the first Death Café was held at Sangha Bean last year and organized by former owner Krista Manuel, who is also trained in death midwifery.
After learning about the concept and approach to dealing with death in school, she decided she would bring a Death Café to Revelstoke. Owning a café herself, she figured she had the perfect location.
Manuel says it’s never the same. That it often provokes laughter. And that it flows according to who is in the room.
“Laughing comes with death,” she says. “It’s a process of life.”
“There has to be the yin and the yang. Even when its dark, there is a lightness or a humour that somehow impacts it.”
Manuel says there will always be people who will be resentful of having these kinds of conversations openly, but that the more prominent these kinds of conversations become on a societal level, the more opportunity there will be for people to open up to them.
“It’s a ripple effect in the community,” she says.
Hamilton studied death midwifery with Manuel and was a semester behind her. Both are involved with Revelstoke Hospice, and interested in trying to remove some of the taboo that we as a society have attached to death and dying.
One of the participants tonight, George Hopkins, who is the elder in the room, has come to a number of these events, and says that he enjoys them immensely. He says he always comes away having listened and learned from the others in attendance.
“We have these great big why’s, and we try to break them down at a Death Café,” says Hamilton.
“It’s just about our stories and life experiences. When you end up talking about death or dying, you’re just really talking about how people lived. And then you’re just talking about people. Essentially it’s just storytelling.”
After the event, having moved and been moved, Hamilton is filled with humility. A participant tells her how grateful he was for the experience, that it has reminded him to be mindful of the falling snowflakes.
“I am but a spoke in the wheel,” she responds.
Hamilton holds Death Cafés on the last Monday of every month at Dose Café.