In our culture, death is an awkward topic. What do you say when a friend's mother dies? And even worse, talking about our own deaths or the eventual deaths of our parents or spouses.
Former architect, chef and food writer, Michael Hebb has been gathering interesting people around dinner tables for the past dozen years.
"I've been bringing thought leaders and scientists and artists and politicians together around dinners to discuss issues. Really trying to invigorate the most important topics and issues we face on the planet."
So the University of Washington gave him a challenge: Create a dinner that hundreds of thousands of people around the globe can participate in. Not long after, Michael happened to get into conversation with two doctors, while on a train from Portland to Seattle, and they discussed the topic of end-of-life.
"There were two statistics that blew my mind," Michael said. "One of those was that 70% of people want to die at home and yet only 30% of them do. So that's half of Americans not getting what they want with their end of life wishes. And that end of life expense is the number one cause of personal bankruptcy. So I realized, at that point, how we die is the most important conversation America is not having."
So he created Let's Have Dinner and Talk About Death. The idea is to get families, friends and communities together to talk about anything from end of life wishes and living wills to fears and questions about what it's like to die.
His website is a step-by-step guide on how to hold a dinner and it creates an appropriate time and place to discuss these important things.
"It is an awkward conversation to bring up out of left field. I mean, we want to know how our parents want to die, what their final wishes are. You want to know if they want the plug pulled or what they want to happen with their stuff. You're going to have to deal with it, most likely, anyway. And so that conversation is natural and essential."
I asked Michael why he thinks people are so afraid to talk about these things?
"I don't think they are. I think that [in our] culture, and even ourselves, we keep this myth going and we give it fuel that we're scared of these topics. Everybody wants to talk about death. We all have it in common. I don't think that people have been given the proper invitation."
Dr. Katie Eastman is a psychologist, who works with dying children. She has been a huge advocate for death discussions for decades. She recently facilitated her first death dinner at a retirement community in Anacortes.
"Within two days it was full and what the ripple has been, from the initial dinner, is older people, younger people, saying, 'Why didn't we do this sooner?' Ninety year olds saying, 'God, I want to talk to my children about my death but they won't do it. They say that they're too afraid.'"
The attendees talked and Katie asked questions.
"I asked, 'What are you afraid of? What do you think about when you think about the word death?' But I didn't have to say much. Basically everybody talked pretty nonstop. Nobody wanted to leave."
Rather than it being a depressing, frightening conversation, Katie says a lot of stress and fear is eliminated through talks like these.
"Learning about death and acknowledging death, you learn how to live. You take life less for granted. So that was a big part of our discussion. It was interesting because the older ones informed the younger ones, 'Hey guys, we're on the other end here. Don't waste a minute.'"
Michael said he learned about himself from his first Let's Have Dinner and Talk About Death.
"I had always kind of imagined my own death in this way, where I would kind of just go off into the woods," Michael said. "Really centered on this notion of not wanting to be a burden. And the first death dinner I did, I had posed this question to everybody, 'What do you want your final days to look like?' And I was ready to give my kind of rehearsed answer about going off into the woods. And what came out was a completely different response. I wanted to have my daughters near me. I have two beautiful daughters, Violet and August, and that was abundantly clear to me that having them near me, when my life ends, was completely new information."
On the topic of kids, both agree that children shouldn't be kept out of these conversations.
"Kids start asking questions, in every culture, about death when they have language," said Katie. "It is a topic they want to talk about. But yes, you use their language. We do such a disservice when we don't take a child to a funeral or when we try and shelter them from death because it becomes far more frightening. And if we model for our kids now that we're willing to talk about it, we teach them not to be so afraid of it."
The Let's Have Dinner and Talk About Death website launched August 24th, and there have already been hundreds of dinners in over a dozen countries.