Exploration into the unknown brings travellers to Death Cafe


Photo Credit: Lisa Kannakko. (Death Cafe attendees enjoy some food and drink over conversations of death and  anything related.)

Photo Credit: Lisa Kannakko.
(Death Cafe attendees enjoy some food and drink over conversations of death and anything related.)

It was the first time Debbie had left her house since the ‘90s. As someone who suffers from agoraphobia, a fear of crowded spaces, overcoming her fear to attend the Death Café meant more than most could ever understand.

Debbie was not the only existential traveller to come to discuss the philosophies of death last Wednesday night at the Belljar Café in Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood. The now annual event, labelled Death Café and hosted by organizer Linda Hochstetler, attracts many people from all walks of life to discuss fears, philosophies, theories and anxieties surrounding death and what comes after.

“We’re not talking about it enough,” said Carolyn, a well-travelled academic and self-described “seeker” who attended Wednesday. “It can go in many different directions, but we need to start talking about it.”

Open and honest conversation is what drove approximately 20 people to attend the event, with hopes of creating a safe environment to talk about a subject often ignored until it can’t be ignored. All preferred that only their first names be used.

“I think people think that they can’t talk about death anywhere else, and most people have experienced something about death that they want to talk about,” Hochstetler said. “It seems safer to talk about it with strangers, rather than family. Conversations with family about death always seem so loaded, but with strangers, you can be freer.”

For two hours strangers opened up to each other about their deepest fears and darkest memories.

“I’ll never forget putting my hands on her cold body,” said Debbie, who lost her mother when she was only 17. “There were no counsellors, no one was there to help me.”

Many tears were shed, but the event rarely moved into the territory of grief therapy. Conversation largely remained an exercise in probing and discovery in both psychology and metaphysics.


Many different philosophical backgrounds shaped the attendees’ perspectives on death, be it Debbie’s interpretation through the Catholic religion, or Henry’s through Taoist, eastern philosophies, or Carolyn’s with her background in mediation and shamanism.

“When I went to see my father-in-law who passed away, his mouth was agape. Like his soul had exited,” recalled Henry, the retired architect with a long gray beard and friendly smile. “He was a kind man. That’s something I never got over.”

Noticeable smiles and laughter after the two hours of conversation cast a revealing atmosphere compared to the shyness and disquieted nature of the opening minutes.

“A death cafe offers people the chance to look at their views toward death. To experience these thoughts in a safe way, in a way that they can laugh, cry, love, and not feel guilty about,” said Hochstetler. “They can feel all the various feelings about death that it includes, and this actually makes them feel more alive. It offers people a chance to think about what might be possible some time in the future for them. For most people, it’s not about anything in the present, but more about reducing anxiety about the future.”

The first Death Café took place in East London in September 2011. It was inspired by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz who hosted a similar event in France to tackle the taboo of death in French culture.

Since then, Death Cafés have popped up all around the U.K., Europe and North America. Death Cafés are considered a “social franchise” meaning they have to meet a few guidelines in order to use the label. Primarily they must be open, not for profit and include food or beverages.

Hochstetler says she’s noticed a new culture developing among the millennial generation, where younger people are more open to talking about death.

“I feel hopeful that in the future, society will be more accepting of our own mortality and allow us to talk about it opening,” Hochstetler said.

There has yet to be scheduled another meeting of the Toronto West Death Café, but Hochstetler stated there would be more to come. People interested can go on deathcafe.com to find a chapter in their area.