SFU Alumni Christa Ovenell hosts a four-part series engaging in open and honest conversations about death

Attending a death workshop taught me that death doesn’t have to be morbid

Photo by Chris Ho.

By Kim Regala, Staff Writer

I’m an avid user of the idiom “I’m dead,” and while I use it mostly for comedic purposes, rarely have I ever had a genuine conversation about what it means to die. In fact, it’s not often that people dive into the topic at all, as it holds rather morbid connotations. However, through attending Christa Ovenell’s workshop, “Know Before You Go,” my entire perspective on addressing death has shifted. Elaborating on what it means to have our affairs in order, Ovenell engages in open and honest discussions that encourage and normalize our approach to end-of-life conversations.

Contrary to the dreariness that surrounds the notion of dying, the event was held at The Learnary, a small and cozy non-profit shop along East Hastings. Selling a variety of intergenerational books, art supplies, and do-it-yourself kits, The Learnary also serves as a workshop space for practical skills from basic sewing to home brewing. I immediately felt a sense of liveliness as I entered the space. A bright yellow accent wall, along with matching yellow curtains, made for a visually vibrant setting. Colourful pennant banners also decorated the room, adding a festive atmosphere to the mix. What I loved most about the space, however, was the nostalgic presence of antiques displayed along the shelves, like old cameras and used typewriters.

I was greeted with a warm welcome by Ovenell and Surya, one of the co-managers of the shop, who kindly offered me tea as she walked me inside. Right away, there was a sense of intimacy and physical closeness, as our small group of ten sat around a circular table. We had no choice but to face one another. At the same time, Ovenell was quick to assure us that we were free to step outside of the circle at any time if we felt any discomfort.

The workshop began with Ovenell asking each individual to introduce themselves, share their reason for attending the event, and mention one thing or person that they loved. While some were just simply curious about the topic at hand, others had specific goals in mind of what they hoped to learn at the end of the session. One attendee openly shared a personal story of having experienced a death in the family and how this motivated her to explore further discussions about how to properly prepare for such an event. Meanwhile, another participant who appeared relatively older than the rest of us, had a more optimistic outlook on death. Instead, she gleefully expressed that she was more than ready to reach the end of her life, and it was only a matter of guaranteeing that all of her preparations were in proper order. Sharing each other’s background was effective in allowing everyone to feel more at ease with one another, building up a level of trust as we dug deeper into our own relationships with death.

Following this brief introduction, Ovenell’s workshop focused on many of the legal matters that go along with planning for the day you die. She offered an abundance of resources, information, and advice regarding legal documentations, such as the difference between a power of attorney and a representation agreement. She also emphasized the importance of a will, urging that in no way should a person die without first establishing where all of their properties should go. While legal advice did not so much apply to me, it was refreshing to observe a group of people candidly talk about organizing their death without any emotional baggage attached. To them, it came off naturally to speak on matters like deciding between cremation or a burial, or about signing do-not-resuscitate forms in order to allow for natural death to occur. 

Although Ovenell was the main facilitator of the discussion, she established a rather open and encouraging space for everyone to include their voices into the conversation. I was surprised to find myself sharing smiles and laughter with the other attendees as we spoke about death with less of an imminent and uncontrollable dread. Rather, we treated it as just another future event that — like all others — would need proper planning. One individual even half-jokingly recommended that perhaps a death party was to be coordinated where people can gather in a social setting to settle documents and wills together. Hearing this suggestion without any context may seem rather dark. However, in the setting of the workshop, it garnered a large amount of laughs from the group who resonated with the idea.

While I initially felt strange discussing death in such a casual and lighthearted manner, I found that it rid me of my formerly bleak perceptions of what a conversation about dying would be like. Being in my 20s, this concept feels rather detached from my everyday reality, and not to mention my large fear of death itself, as it feels so uncertain and ungraspable. However, attending Ovenell’s workshop allowed me to break this very mold that confined the subject of death into something that was dark in nature.

Ovenell will be hosting her next workshop on February 20, which will dive further into the discussion on memorialization. To learn more about her four-part series, you can find more information at The Learnary website.

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