Throughout Canada’s history, the experience of death and dying has changed significantly for families and their communities. Across generations, evolving social, cultural and medical trends have shaped family experiences with death, be they shifts in the causes of death, progressive practices in medicine and care at the end of life or social norms and customs surrounding death that are perpetually in transition. Throughout all this, families have adapted and reacted, finding new ways of mourning the loss of loved ones, and acknowledging and celebrating their lives and their legacies.
To explore developments in the experience of death and dying in Canada, the Vanier Institute of the Family published Family Perspectives: Death and Dying in Canada, authored by writer, speaker and retired Carleton University professor Dr. Katherine Arnup. An update to the original 2013 edition, this conversation catalyst explores diverse family experiences with death while encouraging families to have conversations about death and end-of-life care planning. While these topics are important to the well-being of dying people and their families, many find it difficult to discuss end-of-life subjects with their loved ones and health care providers. However, the topic has been brought to the forefront of public discourse, fuelled by population aging and the legalization of medical assistance in dying (MAID) in June 2016.
With this silence broken, the ways that families across Canada recognize, accept and react to death have changed. People are finding new ways to confront their mortality, face death and celebrate the lives of those they care about, as new opportunities for connection and communication are now possible thanks to social media and online life. These changes are driven by individuals, families and communities – all of which intersect, interact with and have an impact on an ever-changing policy landscape. By exploring some of the new and emerging ways people think about and manage death and end-of-life care planning, much can be learned about how families in Canada are adapting and reacting to death in the current climate.
One new trend that provides an opportunity to confront death is the creation and popularization of death cafés. In 2004, Swiss-born anthropologist Bernard Crettaz hosted a small gathering called café mortel to talk about death. The concept was picked up and popularized by Londoner Jon Underwood, who hosted his first death café in his East Hackney home is 2011. Since then, more than 6,000 death cafés across 55 countries have been held. Though many informal death cafés exist, only those planned by individuals associated with Underwood’s organization can use the title “Death Café.”
The idea [behind death cafes] is to “demystify” death and help people face their fears by facilitating conversation, thus helping to mitigate people’s fears about death and erode the taboo on the subject.
A death café is a gathering of strangers who connect online to come together over tea and cake to discuss death. Participants are separated into tables of four or five with a list of potential conversation starters. The ages of participants vary, ranging from youths to seniors. Most people in attendance have some first-hand experience with death or have had a serious illness themselves, but it isn’t a requirement. Death cafés have few rules – no promotions of services or merchandise and no orthodoxy. These gatherings provide an opportunity to confront and air out our fears regarding death and examine our own desires for the end of our lives. The idea is to “demystify” death and help people face their fears by facilitating conversation, thus helping to mitigate people’s fears about death and erode the taboo on the subject.
Managing death in a digital age
With communications technology rapidly evolving and a growing share of Canadians connecting and staying in touch online, it’s no surprise that this influences how people respond to major life events such as death – a reality highlighted in Family Perspectives: Death and Dying in Canada. As social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have become ubiquitous only in recent years, our norms, expectations and sense of propriety surrounding death in the “digital age” are still in their infancy. For example, searching for the “#funeral” hashtag on Instagram reveals people’s diverse ways of acknowledging and sometimes celebrating the lives of recently passed family members. However, it also provides images that many people might feel “cross the line” when it comes to respecting the feelings and privacy of the deceased and their families. As part of our new conversation of death, discussing boundaries and appropriate ways to intersect our grief with an increasingly public life on social media is imperative.
As social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have become ubiquitous only in recent years, our norms, expectations and sense of propriety surrounding death in the “digital age” are still in their infancy.
Apps such as WeCroak, which sends five notifications at random times during the day to remind users of their eventual death (emulating Bhutanese tradition), represent another way people are using technology to face death. The idea behind WeCroak is to remind people of their mortality and, in doing so, remind them of the value of life.
As fewer Canadians identify with and practise religion, as seen over the last few decades, an increasing number are turning toward non-religious spaces, such as funeral homes, for end-of-life services. As with individuals, places such as funeral homes are also using technology to help people manage death. Recognizing that Canadians are more spread out and mobile than in the past, some now offer video recording or live-streaming of funeral services to reach friends and family members who cannot physically be there to pay their respects.
With a vast majority of Canadians expressing a desire to die at home, many are turning to death doulas (also known as death midwives or soul midwives) to make this a reality for themselves or a loved one. As described in Family Perspectives: Death and Dying in Canada, death doulas are available before, during and after death to support the dying person and their family through the process (much like birth doulas). There is no one particular job for a death doula other than to facilitate the wishes of their client and client’s family. This may include aiding in planning or coordinating end-of-life care, providing emotional support to grieving family and friends through the process, arranging the funeral service, celebration of life or burial rituals, and tending to the body.
Though death doulas are informally trained (mainly by other doulas), some are trained as nurses and can provide medical assistance to the dying. While certification programs are available, no formal government-approved certification currently exists in Canada.
Community mourning and celebrations of life
The decline in the share of Canadians identifying with religion has also shaped where and how we grieve. As services were typically held in churches or religious settings in past generations, a growing number of families are saying goodbye to loved ones in non-religious settings, such as community centres, secular sacred spaces, restaurants, hockey rinks and private homes – locations that may have significantly more meaning to the deceased than a religious place of worship. Many people are passing on events that focus on mourning loss (e.g. funerals, wakes) in favour of celebrations of life. Some are even hosting “living wakes” to honour dying persons and their lives while they are still around to receive the gratitude and respect of their family and friends.
Many people are passing on events that focus on mourning loss (e.g. funerals, wakes) in favour of celebrations of life.
The manner in which people are laid to rest is also changing, and people now have more opportunities than in the past to choose what to do with their remains, with some opting for methods that align with their personal values, preferences and aspirations. For example, green burials (when the body is laid directly in a shroud or simple pine box to limit environmental impact) and biodegradable urns that facilitate the growth of a plant or tree from among the ashes could enable a nature lover who was environmentally conscious in life to maintain that in death. There are even memorial spaceflights available to send a symbolic portion of someone’s remains to land among the stars, on the moon or beyond.1
The topic of death and dying in Canada will become increasingly important to families, organizations and policy-makers in coming decades, as the same factors that pushed it to the forefront (e.g. population aging, legislation) are projected to continue.2 While these are difficult topics for people to discuss, they are unquestionably important, and an essential step toward becoming a society that doesn’t defy or deny the universal experience of death.
While death may be a medical fact of life, death is also a human issue, a social issue, an issue that impacts each and every one of us. When we can embrace our deaths … perhaps we can begin to create a culture that truly values living and dying.
– Katherine Arnup, Family Perspectives: Death and Dying in Canada
Family Perspectives: Death and Dying in Canada examines the evolution of death and dying in Canada across generations, the desires and realities of families surrounding death and dying, the role of families in end-of-life care and its impact on well-being. Through current data and trend analysis, personal interviews with caregivers and families, and personal reflections from hospice volunteering from author Dr. Katherine Arnup, this study discusses death and dying within the current and emerging social, cultural and policy landscapes.
Emily Beckett is a professional writer living in Ottawa.
Published on May 9, 2018
- Lauren O’Neil, “You Can Now Be Buried on the Moon – Even If You’re Not Rich,” CBC News (August 25, 2015). Link: https://bit.ly/1isVd82.
- Learn more in Vanier Institute of the Family, A Snapshot of Population Aging and Intergenerational Relationships in Canada (June 2017). Link: https://bit.ly/3w4j1W8.