“Everyone dies and that is OK.”
Those six words are something of a mantra for Kayla Moryoussef, a Toronto “death worker” who has spent the last six years immersed in death and dying. As the program manager of the Toronto Home Hospice Association’s “Death Café” initiative, she holds sessions for people to talk about death (more about that later) and, in addition, works to help people experience a “good death.”
What might make a death good? That probably depends on the person, but one of the main things Moryoussef works to get people to let go of is fear.
And she’s not alone. While it’s still a relatively niche corner of the death care industry in Canada, there are an increasing number of people with “death doula” or “end-of-life-worker” practices and, like Moryoussef, most are participants in the “death-positivity” movement.
“It’s not that we should celebrate the fact that people died,” says Moryoussef, who works with Toronto’s Home Hospice Association and has a practice called Good Death () through which she runs “Death Café” sessions in Toronto. “But we should accept the fact that people die and, even though it’s not a good thing, it’s an OK thing that’s a part of life. As soon as we recognize that, it becomes less scary.”
In a nutshell, the theory is that we’ve lost touch with death, which used to be more a part of life than it is now. Prior to, say, 100 years ago, people often died at home and, if they lived in small communities, neighbours and family dealt with a lot of pre- and post-mortem issues. As it became more “hands off,” it also became distant, invisible and shrouded in mystery. As a result, we’ve become more afraid of it. Some people use euphemisms, like “passed,” others speak in hushed tones, as though something shameful has happened. At death cafés, people learn to talk about it more openly, in hopes of getting past the fear and awkwardness.
“People get together to talk about dying and death,” says Moryoussef. “They’re not support groups, they’re not grief and bereavement groups, they’re literally just open forum events, although, since we realize that certain populations have different needs, we started to make some population-specific, so we have LGBTQ cafés and, in November, we’re having our first death café for people with chronic illness and chronic pain.”
Death cafés (or “death salons,” as they’re sometimes called) are one of the most successful components of the death positivity movement, says Dr. Katherine Arnup, retired professor at Carleton University and author of “Family Perspectives: Death and Dying in Canada,” a report published by the Vanier Institute of the Family.
“I just looked at the most recent stats, and there have been 9,261 death cafés in 65 countries,” says Arnup, pointing out that this is pretty good given that they only started eight years ago. “I’ve been to a few and it can actually be kind of fun, with a lot of laughter surprisingly. I mean, 65 countries is pretty impressive and there are other ones like “Death over Dinner” and “Death at a Bar,” you know, those kinds of things.”
There’s obviously a demand for a different conversation about death and dying than the one most of us have been having, but public and private sessions aren’t all that death workers offer. Moryoussef has been called upon to join families sitting in vigil and help dying people settle on a “legacy” — usually letters, gifts or memoirs that are to be given to loved ones, post-mortem. This, along with dying at home (when possible), is all part and parcel of the philosophy of the good death. Some death workers even help families who want a home funeral clean and preserve the body.
There are some parallels between this and the big midwifery resurgence (circa 1960-1990s) that saw feminists objecting to a medical system that tended to keep women in the dark and gave them few choices. The modern midwifery movement worked to rectify that by giving women information, encouraging them to be active in making a birth plan and, in some cases, even empowering themselves to choose to deliver at home, instead of the hospital.
So, since birth and death — the only two inevitabilities of life — arguably faced many of the same problems, why didn’t we notice that the death care industry needed some changes, too?
Dr. Arnup says demographics played a big part in the shift in attitudes toward death.
“I don’t like the stuff around the Baby Boomers so much, how you see claims that Boomers changed everything, from the way we eat to the way we die,” says Arnup. “But I think there’s something to be said for the fact that, just because there are so many of us, some have a sense that we can do anything and control things. Certainly some Boomers pushed for medical assistance in dying, which is now the law of the land, and they’re also the people who are supporting hospice.”
Boomers aren’t alone in wanting to avoid the indignities of, say, a protracted death in a hospital, but the sheer number of people in that demographic who hope for pain-free deaths, surrounded by friends and family and, ideally, in their own home, is starting to reshape the industry by supporting alternatives like Moryoussef’s.
And, as she says. It’s still sad — for everyone. It’s not a celebratory moment. But since letting go is a natural part of life, it’s also OK.