Monday, 8 July 2013

Report back from Toronto’s First Death Café with Linda Stuart

Toronto’s First Death Café
June 20, 2013

Can talking about death actually be comforting? Well yes, according to one of Toronto’s first Death Café attendees.   Others described the evening as fun, warm, stimulating, relevant, valuable, candid, needed, encouraging, safe, inspiring and a bit loud.  It’s true, we had an enthusiastic crowd on June 20, 2013 and the noise level in our quaint little room at the 519 Church Street Community Centre proved that!

With a no-show rate of only 10%, 28 participants gathered in small groups of 4-6 to discuss anything and everything to do with death.  There was a good mix of men, women, cultures, faiths and ages ranging from 20-something to 70-something. With no formal guidelines (only a few basics offered in our opening) the groups were free to discuss whatever they desired and the discussions were as varied and unique as the individuals at each table.  Some groups chose to take advantage of the conversation cards that were available but many seemed to generate their own flow of dialogue.

To encourage change of topic and change of table (if desired) we rang a bell every 30 minutes or so.  Only a few chose to move, but we did want to give participants a sense of time and an opportunity to get to know others in the room. 

The venue received mostly favorable responses although the wood floors and high ceilings did make it difficult for some to hear the conversations clearly.  The location worked well for those using public transit but parking could pose a challenge for those who are driving. 

The event generated positive media coverage by The Toronto Star and Globe and Mail as journalists Matt Kwong and Alex Nino Gheciu joined us for the evening.  Links to their articles can be found on the Toronto Death Café Facebook page.

Feedback from participants was very encouraging.  Following are average results based on the 21 surveys completed:
  • Overall event:  4.6 / 5
  • Comfort level:  5 / 5
  • The structure:  4.1 / 5
  • The facilitation:  4.7 / 5

When asked how they felt about the experience or if it affected their feelings about death and/or life, comments included:

  • Brought me joy to know that others seek to make dialogue about death, a part of life
  • Simply by sharing ideas and experiences with others on maybe the one thing we all truly have in common
  • Heightened interested in issues
  • This was an opportunity to speak openly about a topic I seldom discuss
85% of attendees who completed a survey said that they would welcome a guest speaker or have a specific themed Death Café. 

The following suggestions of topics / guest speakers were offered by participants:

  • Hospice, care-giver
  • How to prepare philosophically for death
  • Advance care planning
  • Dying with dignity
  • End of life planning, wills, DNR orders etc.
  • Natural burial options
  • Doctor assisted death 

70% of attendees who completed the survey said that they would feel comfortable hosting a Death Café at a funeral home or cemetery.

Suggestions for improvement consisted of comments such as:

  • Make it less about bereavement and discuss the tough questions related to death
  • More structure / less structure
  • It was too loud to hear people at times
  • More discussion and debate re tough issues around death
  • Ask a question to the whole room to bring the entire group together vs. just tables
  • More conversation cards at tables

Here’s what one of the participants had to say on the Toronto Star website:

“It was an amazing experience.  
Talking about death in today’s society is not welcomed. For instance, ever try to chat with someone about the emotions one goes through when signing a Do not Resuscitate (DNR) order for a parent, a spouse, a child or even yourself? What it is like to be with someone when they die? Sometimes meeting in an anonymous atmosphere allows for a more candid discussion.  My hope is that these cafes will open discussion for attendees amongst their friends and family members. 
Death is so distant when it is ‘outsourced’ to a hospital and then a funeral home. The magnitude of the gap that is left from losing someone close to you can be a shock to those who have ‘done everything right’ per today’s protocols.  
I may agree this seems a little offbeat but the experience was joyful, inspiring and welcomed by all of us who participated.
There was more laughter than tears in the room.”  

Clearly there is a need for such a place to talk openly about death and along with my co-hosts, Cyndy Neilly-Spence, Monica Valitalo and Jake McArthur, we are grateful to be part of this much needed movement.  We are also looking forward to the next café in August.  Stay tuned for more details coming soon!

Linda Stuart
Life-cycle Celebrant, Toronto Death Café Organizer
June 30, 2013


  1. I had a strong sense of deja-vu when reading the article in the Toronto Star with the photo and name of Heather Stewart (68). I am 69 and lived with my family (parents and sister, Evelyn) down the street from her in the '50s on Roxborough Avenue. We were all great childhood friends but lost touch when we moved away.

    Would it be possible for you to contact her or forward this email to he to see if she is the correct Ms Stewart and whether she would like to contact me or my sister.

    Thank you,

    Bert Dandy
    5267 Stamford St.
    Niagara Falls, Ontario
    L2E 1N2

  2. Hello Bert
    Yes of course I will send this to Heather! Fingers crossed for a happy reunion!
    Linda Stuart


Say your piece.