Imagine, you receive an invitation to a party. You open it excitedly and the first words you read are “let’s talk about death”. Your automatic response is to quickly throw the invitation out, but this is a new trend that has begun over the last couple months.People have begun to gather their friends and family to have dinner and talk about death.
Morbidly nicknamed “Death dinners”, the idea for this trend was born in a train from the conversation between two doctors and University of Washington professor Michael Hebb. Upon learning that 75% of Americans want to die at home, but only 25% do, and that most bankruptcies are due to end of life medical fees, professor Hebb decided that action needed to be taken to fix this and that the solution was no more than a difficult conversation. And what better place to have a difficult conversation than over the dinner table. Naming his project “Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death” Hebb, along with some UW students, started reaching out to health professionals and to their loved ones to start these conversations about death.
In our American culture death is not something we feel comfortable talking about. We fear death and do almost anything we can to put it off and ignore it. The idea behind Death Dinner is to force us to face our own mortality and imagine the process by which we die. Due to the rising amount of deaths due to chronic illness and the fear of life support sustained lives, these conversations are vital to have with those who will someday take on responsibility for us. In Hebbs TEDMED talk he pushes that these dinner parties should discuss three big questions: a) how do I want my final days to end? b) who do I want around me? and c) are my family and friends able to support and respect my choices?
Aware of the taboo around these topics, Hebb took his idea to the next step, he made an instructional website. The website http://deathoverdinner.org/ provides a step by step process for creating the perfect death dinner. It provides options for dinner guests, for the intention behind the party, recommendations for pre-dinner reading, conversation prompts, post-dinner next steps, and even an invitation for your guests. The only thing the user needs to provide are dinner, their thoughts on death, and a good helping of courage.
These dinners are tough, they access our fears and make us understand our mortality, but they are the first step in starting a conversation that no one is having. They are a first step to increasing the number of people with living wills, to ensuring that people are dying in the manner they choose, to reducing the number of people dying in hospitals and hospices. At the moment, though, Death Dinners seem to be a trend among the educated, upper middle class, and wealthy. The question is, how do we spread the conversation to those who need medicare or who don’t have health insurance? These are the populations that face the most hardship in the costs of dying.
Hebb’s Death Dinners are a great idea that will hopefully progress through classes, cultures, and generations. Death is something that happens to all of us, and while it’s scary and not something we want to think about, making sure that we ourselves and those around us understand our wishes for the end is important. For more information check out both Hebb’s website and his TEDMED talk bellow.