Death Over Dinner: Removing the Stigma from Death

I was listening to the local NPR station recently and heard about a new movement called Death Over Dinner, based in Washington state but with a national reach. The premise is this: you invite a group of people — family members, friends, coworkers, even perfect strangers — to dinner at a given location specifically to discuss death. The conversation can cover any aspect of death, from end of life plans and funeral services to fears of death, the science behind the dying process, and different cultures’ perspectives on death. The website linked above allows dinner planners to select “homework” (articles, excerpts from books, short videos and audio) for guests to complete before the dinner date so that everyone is on the same page and has relevant thoughts to contribute to the discussion, and then helps to plan the dinner around this discussion.

The Death Taboo

The founder of the movement, Michael Hebb, began this project in response to a statistic he heard in conversation with two doctors on a train: while nearly 75% of Americans express a wish to die at home, only 25% of them actually do. Hebb asserts that the primary reason for this is that the subject of death is so taboo that people often don’t discuss their wishes regarding the circumstances of their deaths and all that comes afterward — memorial services, funerals, the dispensation of their bodies, wills and the execution of their estates — to their detriment and that of their loved ones and caregivers.

“Small Deaths” by Kate Breakey

I’ve often seen this death taboo in action. One instance that immediately comes to mind is a series of comments on Pinterest regarding an image of a dead woodpecker in a series entitled “Small Deaths” by photographer Kate Breakey. Some comments were positive; one pinner, picking up on the photographer’s reverent treatment of the bird in the photo, simply replied: “All life is precious. Beautiful.” But other pinners were extremely offended by the image, with one stating:

There’s nothing ‘artistic’ about the death of an animal. People who think so, in my opinion, are ignorant little infants who know nothing of death and are pretentiously trying to appear ‘deep.’

You can sense the fear of death that pervades that statement; for that pinner, the rawness of death is not something she wants to explore, or even other people to explore. It’s a subject that should remain unexamined, buried with the dead; to examine it is somehow disrespectful to the dead. It’s as if any examination of death, regardless of tone or method, is somehow pornographic.

This confused me. I don’t shy away from examinations of death, but it’s not because I’ve never experienced it in my life and have some twisted, dilettante fascination with it. I’ve experienced the loss of family members, young acquaintances and school peers. We’ve all seen roadkill, taxidermy and hunting photos. I’m acutely aware of death, and it’s that awareness that makes me want to face it, examine it, perhaps make it less frightening because I know it’s inevitable.

To me, and I stated this in a response to the offended parties, the photograph doesn’t seek to glorify death in any way; instead, it reinforces the sense that death — all death — is worthy of being mourned and remembered. It’s not unlike the Victorian tradition of photographing the dead in memoriam. The title of the series, “Small Deaths,” is partly ironic because it’s clear, from the very meticulous way that the animals are laid and the framing of the images, that the photographer (and, by extension, the audience) does not view this death as “small,” at least not in the sense of being trivial. The aesthetic beauty of the photograph is an expression of reverence, not exploitation, in that it takes this death that we might look past in the yard or along the side of the street and forces us to see and feel that loss.

Learning to Talk About Death

Photo by Scott Macklin, via the Department of Communication, University of Washington

Of course, we all deal with death in different ways, but I think that Hebb is right that our culture’s death taboo comes at a cost. By not being willing to examine or discuss death, we are inadvertently missing out on valuable conversations that can make the last years and moments of our lives, and those of our loved ones, more comfortable and fulfilling. Not knowing how someone would have liked to be remembered and laid to rest can create a lot of uncertainty and stress in the aftermath of the death of a loved one. Having that discussion gives everyone an opportunity to think about how they would like to be remembered and what messages they would like conveyed after they’ve passed.

Growing up, my family was always very frank about death, dying and how we want to be remembered. This means that I know that my dad wants “Simple Man” played at his funeral, and that my mom wants to be cremated and her ashes planted with a tree (I want the same). My sister has made it clear that she doesn’t want any chemicals pumped into her body (to avoid poisoning the earth) or to be cremated — she wants to be buried whole, naturally, in the earth. I actually have an entire Word document with my future funeral service planned out. It includes music and passages that are meaningful to me and will hopefully provide comfort to those in mourning, and instructions for how to dispose of my body. These desires of ours have been shared over and over again during long family road trips, while shopping or cleaning the house or gardening, and yes, during dinner.

I’ve carried this tradition over into my marriage. We address the topic of death and loss during long walks, long drives, and over dinner, just as my parents did. We talk about our terror of losing each other or our son, our sentimental goal of dying peacefully and naturally together at a good old age, whether (if one of us does die before the other) we want the other to remarry and how we’d like our son to be raised. We talk about how we’d like our bodies to be interred and the general structure and tone of our memorial services. As our son grows older, he’ll be part of these conversations, too.

We don’t enjoy talking or thinking about these things, but we know it’s important. The one thing I fear more than death is being taken off-guard by it. Of course, we can never be truly, completely prepared, but it helps to have a framework so that, when the time comes, there’s a little less mystery, fear and frustration to confront. During these conversations, death feels less like a door ready to be slammed in my face than a transition, and our last rites serve as a method of easing both the dead and the living into the next phase in ways that are comforting and deeply meaningful. Knowing how someone wants to be remembered through the funerary process is a way to ensure that the ties we feel with them remain strong, even after they leave us.

Why During Dinner?

A structured dinner conversation about death can be a great way to breach the subject for those who are uncomfortable with the idea of discussing death. As Hebb explains:

The dinner table is the most forgiving place for difficult conversation. The ritual of breaking bread creates warmth and connection, and puts us in touch with our humanity. It offers an environment that is more suitable than the usual places we discuss end of life.

What are your views on death? Would you consider having a dinner conversation about it with your loved ones?

Something I Learned Yesterday

This homeless cat’s life is a lot harder than mine, and it complains less.

Yesterday, I suffered a minor disappointment: a short, low-key vacation I’d been thinking about and planning for a few weeks has turned out not to be the practical thing for financial reasons and therefore isn’t going to happen this year. It’s not a big deal; I know that now and I knew it then. Still, when the disappointment was fresh, I did what I usually do when I don’t get my way: I pouted and wallowed in self-pity like a five-year-old. And what I usually do to counter my wallowing in self-pity like a five-year-old is distract myself — watch TV or take a nap — which has the same effect as slapping a bandage on a bruise: it doesn’t solve anything, except provide a little padding.

Knowing that it wasn’t a big deal and that I was acting like a spoiled child, and acknowledging that this wasn’t the first time that I’d reacted this way — that handling disappointment isn’t my forte and that minor tantrums are a bad, if infrequent, habit of mine — made me realize that I needed to figure out how to grow as a person and not regress to juvenile behavior. So, instead of allowing myself to be bitter about my circumstances, or doing something lazy and self-indulgent to distract myself for a while rather than solve the problem, I decided to do the exact opposite: I did things I didn’t want to do, but that needed to get done. Because the world doesn’t stop for disappointment, and doing something puts me in the present and applies that built-up energy toward something useful. So I swept and vacuumed the floors, did another load of laundry, started the dishwasher, and made a grocery list. I also did a few sets of pull-ups and crunches.

And I felt better afterwards. Part of it was probably due to the rush of endorphins activated by light physical activity, but an even bigger part of feeling better was realizing, while doing the housework, that the source of the problem wasn’t that I didn’t get my way, or that I’m childish for being disappointed; it was that I’d invested too much emotional energy in a projected (rather than actual) future. I hadn’t even made reservations yet (although I did reschedule a dental cleaning for it), but I’d allowed myself to spend a good deal of time thinking how nice it would be to get away from the city for a while, to sit in the quiet with my husband and my dog for a few days, to relax under the stars, wrapped in blankets, and drink a glass or two of wine, and not worry about real life for a while. If I hadn’t allowed myself to get so wrapped up in what could be, the disappointment wouldn’t have been so hard to take.

I don’t think I’m the only one who does this, which is why I’m sharing, and it goes beyond little vacations to larger life issues. It’s a perspective and a cycle fostered by cliches like, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” In reality, sometimes you can’t. Sometimes things don’t work out exactly the way you’d imagined they would. And just planning and dreaming about something doesn’t entitle you to receive it. Sometimes you’ll be disappointed. And, quite often, achieving those dreams requires lots of time and sacrifices you won’t want to surrender; it doesn’t necessarily come easily.

But that doesn’t mean that life sucks. I think the way to prevent disappointment (not entirely, but a large portion of it) is by not investing so much of one’s emotional energy in the projected future. I’m not saying that it’s bad to want things, to hope or plan for things — that’s not true at all. What I’m saying is that by wanting something tenuous so deeply, by steadfastly committing ourselves to a dream, we’re only hurting ourselves. Instead, we need to focus most of that energy on finding satisfaction in the present, in things that are, rather than what might be. Because it’s true that life — even a life that lasts 120 years — is short. There are so many small, simple pleasures around us — like drinking coffee or tea in the early morning and watching the world wake up around us — that we miss if we only look forward to things that might happen, to things we might have someday. By living in the present, appreciating what is around us — what is — the projected future matters less. It allows us to look forward to things without investing ourselves in them, so that if they don’t work out the way we wanted them to, we can more easily shrug our shoulders and move on. It’s true for both big disappointments as well as small ones. Because, yes, we are the creators of our own happiness, regardless of our situation, regardless of what happens to us.

A quote to close:

“And to serve your own mind so that sadness or joy do not sway or move it; to understand what you can do nothing about and to be content with it as with fate — this is the perfection of virtue.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 4, trans. by Burton Watson)

Thanks for reading. As always, you’re welcome to leave a comment below.

The Quotable Henderson

I recently finished Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. I’d been meaning to read it for years, but haven’t had the time. So, after graduation, this was the first book I picked up. It came at a great time, as I’ve long been thinking about the relationship between the body and the soul and the need, as Henderson says, for a “shot in the arm from animal nature.” Here are some quotes that grabbed me:

“They say the air is the final home of the soul.”

“Yes, travel is advisable. And believe me, the world is a mind. Travel is mental travel.”

“Yes, yes, yes. The world of facts is real, all right, and not to be altered. The physical is all there, and it belongs to science. But then there is the noumenal department, and there we create and create and create. As we tread our overanxious ways, we think we know what is real.”

King Dahfu: “They say…that bad can easily be spectacular, has dash or bravado and impresses the mind quicker than good. Oh, that is a mistake in my opinion. Perhaps of common good it is true. Many, many nice people. Oh yes. Their will tells them to perform good, and they do. How ordinary! Mere arithmetic. ‘I have left undone the etceteras I should have done, and done the etceteras I ought not to have.’ This does not even amount to a life. Oh, how sordid it is to book-keep. My whole view is opposite or contrary, that good cannot be labor or conflict. When it is high and great, it is too superior. Oh, Mr. Henderson, it is far more spectacular. It is associated with inspiration, and not conflict, for where a man conflicts there he will fall, and if taking the sword also perishes by the sword. A dull will produces a very dull good, of no interest. Where a fellow draws a battle line there he is apt to be found, dead, a testimonial of the great strength of effort, and only effort.”

“And though I’m no expert I guess [King Dahfu is] thinking of mankind as a whole, which is tired of itself and needs a shot in the arm from animal nature.”

King Dahfu: “The career of our specie…is evidence that one imagination after another grows literal. Not dreams. Not mere dreams. I say not mere dreams because they have a way of growing actual. At school in Malindi I read all of Bulfinch. And I say not mere dream. No. Birds flew, harpies flew, angels flew, Daedalus and son flew. And see here, it is no longer dreaming and story, for literally there is flying. You flew here, into Africa. All human accomplishment has this same origin, identically. Imagination is a force of nature. Is this not enough to make a person full of ecstasy? Imagination, imagination, imagination! It converts to actual. It sustains, it alters, it redeems! …What Homo sapiens imagines, he may slowly convert himself to.”

[In a letter to his wife, Lily] “‘However, the geniuses love common life a great deal.’ …By genius I mean somebody like Plato or Einstein. Light itself was all Einstein needed. What could be more common?

“[King Dahfu] tells me I should move from the states that I myself make into the states which are of themselves.”

Thoughts? Share below.

Appearances Are Deceiving

Last night, I took my puppy, Darcy, outside to go to the bathroom before bed as usual. It was dark but the porch light was on and, as we walked out the door, I saw a grasshopper in the corner of the doorway, swaying side to side as Darcy passed close by. I thought it was trying to ward us off, like I’d seen other insects do when they felt threatened, so I led Darcy away, onto the grass. When we came back to the door, it was still swaying side to side between the light and shadows. I thought it was strange that it hadn’t left, but I left it alone and pretty much forgot about it.

I took Darcy out again this morning, and when we came to the door to go back inside, my eyes passed idly over the corner where I’d seen the grasshopper. It was still there, but it wasn’t moving. It was attached to a spider’s web and the spider stood on the grasshopper’s wing, eating it. It struck me then that what I’d thought was defensive posturing on the grasshopper’s part was most likely the grasshopper’s efforts to free itself from the web. Or it could have been that the grasshopper was already dead and the spider was the one making the grasshopper sway as it moved along the web, unseen in the shadows. The grasshopper may not even have seen us as we passed through the doorway.

I can’t help acknowledging that, once again, nature has proven that what I think I see, and what I think I know, may not be the whole truth in any given situation. I only saw the half that was in the light; the rest was in shadow. And I made an assumption based on that. It’s really not any different in human interactions. Or in our perception of reality, for that matter. It’s easy to assume that the surface — a person’s appearance, the way they speak, the opinions they share — are all that there is because it’s all we can see in the light. We forget that there’s an entire world within them that we may never see, maybe because it’s comforting to imagine that one’s individual perception is objective and total reality. But it doesn’t mean that this other, shadowed world doesn’t exist.

I think that’s perhaps the greatest function of storytelling, if I were to ascribe a use to literature (something I always hesitate to do): to reveal the shadows in a character, real or fictional. I don’t mean “shadows” in a sinister context, as the word often implies; I mean the fears, the inner struggles, the vulnerabilities of people who would otherwise be passed over. To fully humanize them. Because what defines us are not just those traits that are revealed in the light, in our day-to-day interactions, but also that secret, interior world that isn’t often (or ever) revealed to anyone else. Stories are there to entertain, yes, but they also offer an education. They teach us to realize the humanity in others, no matter how well we think we know them. And that’s what makes stories so important, so difficult to write, and so wonderfully rewarding to read.

This isn’t a new idea, of course, but it’s easy to forget. It’s something I struggle to realize every day with each new person I meet, as well as with people I’ve known for years. The reminders come in many forms and I hope that, some day, I’ll be able to integrate those reminders into my being so completely that when I meet someone knew, I’ll no longer see just their surface, but the hint of shadows within as well.

Everything’s Empty: The Poetry of Cold Mountain

Taking a break from work today, I read several poems by Hanshan (“Cold Mountain”), a near-mythical poet who wrote in the Taoist and Chan Buddhist tradition. Living as a fugitive during the Tang dynasty, he composed his poems on stones, trees, and the walls of caves. The following are my favorites so far.

(Note: I’ve left the punctuation as I found it, since several sources have recorded it the same way. I believe these translations were done by Red Pine.)

I recently hiked to a temple in the clouds
and met some Taoist priests.
Their star caps and moon caps askew
they explained they lived in the wild.
I asked them the art of transcendence;
they said it was beyond compare,
and called it the peerless power.
The elixir meanwhile was the secret of the gods
and that they were waiting for a crane at death,
or some said they’d ride off on a fish.
Afterwards I thought this through
and concluded they were all fools.
Look at an arrow shot into the sky-
how quickly it falls back to earth.
Even if they could become immortals,
they would be like cemetery ghosts.
Meanwhile the moon of our mind shines bright.
How can phenomena compare?
As for the key to immortality,
within ourselves is the chief of spirits.
Don’t follow Lords of the Yellow Turban
persisting in idiocy, holding onto doubts.

Children, I implore you
get out of the burning house now.
Three carts await outside
to save you from a homeless life.
Relax in the village square
before the sky, everything’s empty.
No direction is better or worse,
East just as good as West.
Those who know the meaning of this
are free to go where they want.