John vanden Heuvel wants to start a conversation on a topic he knows isn’t popular at dinner parties — death.
On November 26, Nelson will hold its first Death Café, a place where people gather to talk about death and any related subjects with the guidance of a moderator.
“The whole idea is to make it really informal,” said 66-year-old vanden Heuvel. “We want to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their finite lives. The casual, intimate and safe atmosphere is important to that — nothing serious, it’s not going to be somber.”
vanden Heuvel first heard of Death Café over a year ago and Canada’s first café host Don Morris of Victoria has mentored him as he set one up in Nelson.
Death Cafés are now held in about 300 communities throughout Europe, North America and Australasia based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist who set up Cafés Mortels in Paris. The first Death Café was held in the UK and today there are groups meeting in the Lower Mainland, Calgary and Seattle.
“It’s an amazing new movement around the world,” said vanden Heuvel. “The awareness of death and dying is becoming more a common subject in our communities.”
In Nelson, death and dying have taken a step into the spotlight with Kalein Hospice Centre and the public art project “Before I die…” on the side of the old Extra Foods building.
“But I think there are still some barriers that need to be broken to make that subject more commonplace in our society,” he said. “What do you want to do before you die? Okay, but what about just how do you feel about dying. It’s another aspect.”
The café organizer explained the effort one goes through in preparing for birth gets significantly more attention than preparing for death. The bookends of life deserve equal footing, he said.
“Is there preparation time for death?” vanden Heuvel asks. “From my experience the family is hesitant to talk with the person who is going to die about what is going to happen.”
While Death Café is separate from hospice, vanden Heuvel has been a volunteer for the organization. His death experiences come from this work as well as little moments in life where he was confronted by life’s end. He is willing to share the memory of falling off a too-big bicycle as a nine-year-old and having a car come close to striking him. A few years later, the teen snuck into a mortuary with a friend who showed him his first dead body.
“But then there was a long period of many, many, many years when I wasn’t confronted with death. Yet, it’s happening out there. We read it in papers, hear about the horrible Philippines storms that have taken all these people. But it’s always out there. It’s not right here. It does happen here and often we aren’t prepared for it.”
These kinds of personal stories and reflections are welcome as Death Café delves into the topic some find troubling. vanden Heuvel asked a group of close friends who gather weekly if they wanted to discus death at their next dinner party. His proposal wasn’t well received.
“Response was muted,” he said. “A woman said to me, ‘John, why are you so fixated by death?’ I said ‘well, it’s inevitable.’ Even in that intimate circle, there was hesitancy.” vanden Heuvel quotes Woody Allen, “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
He feels this humourous take is illustrative of the distance people maintain when uncomfortable or even afraid of death. And if he confronts his own fears, vanden Heuvel admits he struggles with his own feelings about dying.
“I am in that process of trying to get rid of my fear. I don’t want to die. I still have so much more to live for,” he said. “I am not flippant. I am not laissez faire about the whole thing… I think that’s part of the process. Hopefully, by listening to others, it will help me and help others.”
While Death Café is there to make death the guest of honour, it isn’t a grief support group nor does it lead people to any conclusion, product or course of action. The cafés are also not for profit.
Those interested in a conversation about death are welcome to attend Tuesday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Booksmyth, 338 Baker Street.