I’ve never thought about death as a fun topic of discussion. Then I sat down with Wendy Kurchak who proceeded to cheerfully use the word fun three times (more, if you count the number of times she mentioned her own funeral with a grin) as we talked about death and dying ahead of Calgary’s first Death Café.
“It’s really difficult to imagine that some day I’m going to be dead,” she told me over coffee. “I think that’s one of the fun aspects of Death Café, is having a chance to talk about what that is actually going to be like.”
Over the course of our interview, Wendy asked me a few decidedly un-fun questions, including: “If I said to you Zoey, you’ve got two months left… What does it feel like when I say that?”
I struggled with the question as a slight feeling of dread settled around me. It didn’t feel good to imagine I had just two months to live and I told Wendy so.
Wendy had proved her point: talking about death—our own or someone else’s—feels awkward, creepy and foreboding to most people. But accepting there is an unavoidable end is a powerful way to embrace life’s opportunities while you’re living them.
A Death Café seeks to provide a forum to do just that—and hey, there’s free cake, too.
Calgary’s first Death Café hopes to bring taboo subject out where it belongs
For the Calgary Herald. Originally published March 9, 2013.
“How do you want to die?”
Wendy Kurchak poses the question, knowing from experience it’s likely to provoke some discomfort.
Kurchak has ruminated at length on the macabre query.
“I have a feeling mine might be a transport truck, the way I drive,” she says cheerfully. “It’s probably not very good because I want an open casket.”
Kurchak can describe her ideal funeral in detail — her two outfits, a casket filled with compliments on how good she looks that day, a prize for whoever correctly guesses her cause of death — sounding ironically as if she’s planning her birthday party. She’s not trying to be creepy, rather she’s demonstrating how unusual it is to hear someone talk openly about death.
Kurchak is a certified thanatologist — that’s someone educated in the scientific aspects of death. She describes Western culture as “death-denying” and wants to see more people discussing death comfortably. To help make that happen, Kurchak is bringing the emerging worldwide trend of the Death Cafe to Calgary on March 10.
Morbid though it sounds, a Death Cafe is “actually about life-affirming stuff,” Kurchak says.
“Death Cafe creates a space where people can feel safe talking about their crazy ideas,” she says, referring back to plans for her final party. “The philosophy behind it is that when we acknowledge death, we can live a fuller life.”
The first Death Café was inspired by the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz and his original Cafés Mortels, held in Paris in November 2010. Jon Underwood organized a similar event in his London basement in September 2011. That small gathering kicked off a series of Death Cafés around the world, including events in Columbus, Ohio, Tucson, Ariz., and Victoria, B.C., where the first Canadian Death Café was held.
“It’s really difficult to imagine that some day I’m going to be dead,” Kurchak says. “I think that’s one of the fun aspects of Death Café, is having a chance to talk about what that is actually going to be like.”
At Calgary’s first Death Café, Kurchak plans to provoke discussion with questions like: What does “life after death” mean? What is it like to die? Can you contact dead people? She’ll also open up discussion to topics of grief and bereavement.
It’s all meant to make the concepts of death and dying more real, she says, and less taboo. While interest in Death Cafés transcends age, Kurchak has noticed Baby Boomers in particular are increasingly interested in talking about dying.
Janet Mackidd is one such boomer planning to attend the Death Café and she is no stranger to death. After 35 years working as nurse, “I’ve seen more people die than most other people,” she says.
Still, when her stepfather died a year and a half ago, followed by the death of her close friend last fall, the losses hit Mackidd hard.
“I mean, it’s one thing when your older relatives die. It’s sort of, ‘Yeah, I expect it,’ “ Mackidd says. “But this one was really hard to handle, just because she was young, she was vibrant, she was active, she was intelligent. She was all those things and for her to go it was like, it hits you in the head.”
Mackidd sees the Death Café as a chance for people such as her to heal through shared experiences. And beyond that, she sees it as part of a cultural shift that’s happening around death.
“Our whole society is so focused on youth and we want to recapture that and we don’t want to think about dying . . .
“I think that Baby Boomers as a whole, we were the generation that started talking about sex,” Mackidd says. “Now we’re getting to that age bracket where we have to pursue more uncharted territory, which is talk about death and talk about dying and what it means to us.”
Kurchak agrees, comparing talk of death today to what it was like for her teaching sex ed 30 years ago, early in her career as a high-school guidance counsellor: “it was all really uncomfortable.”
“My goal is that whoever comes just feels more comfortable in their own life about talking about that inevitable end of it,” she says. “I just want people to be more comfortable talking about death. Because once we’re more comfortable with it, then each person will take from that whatever they need and want.”
Calgary’s first Death Café happens Sunday, March 10, 2013 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Self Connection Books, 4611 Bowness Road N.W. A screening of Mr. Reaper’s Really Bad Morning, a darkly comedic animated short from Calgary animators Kevin Kurytnik and Carol Beecher, will precede the death chat. The event is free, but Kurchak asks that attendees RSVP to reserve space and so she bakes enough cake. RSVP at email@example.com.