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?

A Five-Minute Game of Jungian Analysis

My husband Eric found this article on a friend’s Facebook page, and loving self-psychoanalysis as much as we do, we had to play it. Our answers were pretty compelling and spot-on, so I thought I’d share mine here. (If you want to play the game, too, click the link before reading below; if you try to play afterwards, you’ll know too much and won’t be able to!)

The promise

(Photo by Henrik Johansson)

My answers:

  • The cube is about 2-3 square feet in size with a blue-black gunmetal surface and sits directly on the floor of the desert.
  • The ladder is a 12-foot aluminum lean-to type that rests against the cube at an estimated 75-degree angle.
  • The horse stands to the right of the cube, and it’s a strong, sturdy Clydesdale breed. Its coat is dapple gray, and it has a white mane and tail and black eyes.
  • There are four or five flowering plants, all of them dahlias in creamy-bright shades of hot pink, peach, and pale yellow. They’re close to the ground with about two to three blooms on each plant, and they surround the cube, horse and ladder.
  • The storm is far-off, hanging over a ridge of great, gray-blue mountains in the distance. It’s a big, swirling storm, but with no lightning.

The interpretation:

  • As my ego, the cube is fairly small but not tiny. I’m a little insecure and unsure of myself, but not completely lacking self-confidence. I’m a grounded person, and the dark, shiny surface suggests that I’m reflective and engage with my environment, but not transparent — perhaps not easy to get to know, keeping parts of myself hidden.
  • The ladder, representing my friends, is lightweight but sturdy — perhaps suggesting that I view my friends as capable people without a lot of baggage to carry around. Even so, I feel that they lean on me for support and remain close to me.
  • The horse, representing my husband, is sturdy, emotionally and financially supportive, and dependable. He’s my right-hand man and a reliable, equal partner and companion — he isn’t bearing the cube like a weight, nor is he bearing down on it. He stands beside me. The dapple gray coloring is (to me) elegant, almost otherworldly, and suggests a kind of contemplative reticence, which makes sense because my husband is introverted, reserved in public, and intellectual in nature. We have great conversations.
  • As a representation of children, I imagine having a small number (definitely not as many as four or five!), and I view them as grounding (being close to the ground), warm and enlivening (dahlias represent warmth, vitality, and happiness to me, and the colors reflect this, too). There aren’t not too many of them, and they surround me and my husband (with their love!). I didn’t mention this above, but they’re also very healthy-looking — I guess I’m pretty confident that we can bring up our son and his future sibling to be healthy, happy, confident people. I really do view my son as this little ray of warm, vital sunshine — he has so much energy, and he’s such a happy, good-natured baby. Playing with and taking care of him keeps me in the present, which is good for me. I’m sure that my subconscious was expressing my perception of him when I thought of the flowers.
  • The storm, representing threat and risk, suggests that I’m aware of risk, but it’s far off in the distance and hedged by barriers (the mountains) that catch the brunt of the storm so that it’ll dissipate before reaching the scene. I feel secure in my life because we’ve taken good measures to hedge risk, and I don’t worry too much.

All in all, a pretty good summation of my perceptions of myself, those around me, and my environment.

Share your answers in your comments below! I’d love to hear what you come up with.

Magical Poetry: Publication News

The Magic Circle. John William Waterhouse. 1886.

Just in time for the magical Hallowe’en season (oh yes, it’s a full-on season at my house), I am happy to announce that one of my poems, “A Spiral Upward,” will appear in the upcoming fall/winter issue of Witches & Pagans Magazine. I don’t yet know what the release date is, but I’ll announce when it’s available for purchase online and at your local Barnes and Noble bookstore.

“A Spiral Upward” contemplates the central figure in the John William Waterhouse painting The Magic Circle (shown above). That painting has long fascinated and inspired me; it resonates with the part of me that is wild and ritualistic and magical. It evokes the earthy mystique of fairy tales and the strong, mysterious female figure that is the Witch in our collective unconscious. I connect with that, or want to. It’s that felt connection, as well as a moment of enlightenment, that serves as the subject of the poem.

If you can’t tell, I’m thrilled about this news. W&P is a well known, well distributed magazine with a great community of readers and contributors. I’ve been interested in sharing my work with the pagan community for a long time because I think my work — nature-oriented and fairly mystical — would find a wider audience of willing readers there, and I’m glad to be given the opportunity to do so. Hopefully, this isn’t the last you’ll see of me on W&P.

Broken Bowl, Repaired

A few months ago, I was killing time by meandering through the Columbia Museum of Art one Sunday (free admission day!), babywearing Espen while he napped (the quiet and dimness of the museum was so soothing to him), while Eric was in a meeting with a client. I make a point to drop into the Asian art rooms every time I go because the pieces there — pottery, statues of horses and gods and buddhas, jade tablets etched with gold — are so satisfying and soothing. It’s the understatement that resonates with me, the simplicity of monochromatic hues and lines belying complex processes, techniques, and symbolism.

It must have been there a while, but it was the first time I noticed it — a simple celadon-hued ceramic bowl with seemingly haphazard golden veins streaking the surface. Struck by its idiosyncratic beauty, I read the card beside it to learn more. It was a kintsugi bowl — a regular bowl that had broken and was repaired using lacquer resin mixed with powdered gold. I’d never come across anything like it before, and the meaning behind the technique hit me hard — the bowl, average in wholeness, when broken became singularly exquisite. The lines created an interesting pattern in an otherwise run-of-the-mill object, the gold complemented by the muted hue around it. Rather than covering the cracks up, the repairer celebrated them, honored them.

As notable writer on Japanese ceramics Christy Bartlett explains:

Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated… a kind of physical expression of the spirit of mushin….Mushin is often literally translated as “no mind,” but carries connotations of fully existing within the moment, of non-attachment, of equanimity amid changing conditions. …The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject.

This is a lesson for everyone, about everything. It hits home for me personally because I often struggle with feelings of inadequacy because I’m not (nor can I be) perfect. I have made mistakes — some big, some small — and, even beyond mistakes, I am extremely quirky. I’m also fairly vain because I tend to be insecure. Throughout high school especially, I tried so hard to project normalcy; I publicly distanced myself from anything geeky or weird for much of my adolescence. I wanted to be accepted in the mainstream, to embody that wholesome lifestyle that our culture projects and applauds in various ways.

But, to paraphrase Cyndi Lauper, I am so unusual. And I’ve been learning, a little at a time, that that’s okay. It’s also okay for me to make mistakes. It’s okay for me to not try so hard to be the ideal others want me to be that I walk on eggshells around people out of fear of offending them. Of course, that’s not to say that I (or anyone else) has carte blanche to be cruel or rude or bigoted or prejudicial. It just means that it’s okay for me to accept that some people will always be prone to criticism and maljudgement, and that it’s not my job to kowtow to the rest of the world in a solitary effort to keep the peace. I will always strive to be kind and to become a better person than I’ve been, but I also have to acknowledge that it’s a process and that I am the sole person who gets to define what “better” means for me.

I have been broken. I am fusing myself back together. And I’m using gold to do it so that people can see the cracks that have been made. Because the cracks are the experiences that allow me to become better than I was — more interesting, kinder, and wiser. So that the repaired bowl is more beautiful than the original.

I don’t want to glorify brokenness per se. A bowl in pieces is useless — it serves no one and nothing, least of all itself. It’s when it’s put back together that it becomes stronger and more beautiful. It’s also important to note that a broken object repaired with mortar is less appealing, and a bowl repaired with Scotch tape is less durable, than one repaired with lacquer and gold. Not all repair mediums are created equal — the beauty and strength of the repair depends on these. I’ve had help — various people and ideas have gone into the repair work — but the main two have been Taoism and a supportive partner. With these as support, I fought against the things that drove the pieces of me apart, and I’ve replaced them with the wisdom that (and this is just an example list):

– everything has an equal-but-opposite counterpart that depends necessarily on its other in a cycle to exist
– beauty is not only relative but also not all that important
– relaxing and accepting things as they are — people, world events, change — is to my benefit (and I still struggle daily with this)
– I don’t have to wave a banner for every single issue (or for any issue in particular) to be valuable
– perfection does not exist, and I should not expect myself (or anyone else) to be perfect

No, I am not perfect; I am not the ideal anything, nor will I ever be. I am, however, mostly repaired. I’m still getting some of the pieces fitted back into their places — and some of the pieces have been lost and need(ed) to be replaced, or the spaces they’ve created may just be left open to let the air pass through — but I’m not the shattered person I once was. I am better, more whole. I am more understanding of weakness and flaws in others because of my understanding of my own, and I will be able to teach my son things that are good for him to know because of where I’ve been. To go even further, I am good and deserving of goodness, at least as much as anyone else is.

So this is my message to the world:

You may have shattered at some point; or you may just get chipped now and then. Either way, we all have broken at least a little in the past. It’s inevitable. But you can be repaired; you may already have been repaired, or at least started the work. I don’t expect you to be perfect — my version or anyone else’s. Just be sure that the medium you use to repair yourself makes you feel more whole — peaceful, compassionate, satisfied, less angry and seeking confrontation, and so on. If it fuels anxiety or indignation or self-righteousness or shame, it’s not going to hold. If it makes you feel enlightened (particularly in the sense of removing weight — darkness will always be there, but the weight of it doesn’t have to be), understanding, and accepting, it’ll make you stronger and better. It’s okay to let the cracks show.

In Memoriam: Robin Williams

I’m taking the news of Robin Williams’ death kind of hard. It’s kind of embarrassing because I didn’t know him; he was a celebrity. On a personal level, we had nothing to do with each other. And still, I felt like I knew him. Part of it is shock, which always comes with sudden death, especially when it’s suicide. Maybe another part is that I’ve been kind of depressed lately, and seeing the toll of severe depression on someone else is particularly affecting now.

Another reason is that he looks so much like my dad (who is, thankfully, still living). In my family, we’ve always talked about how much they’re alike. He’s only 10 years older than my dad, and they share the same first initial and last name—R. Williams. And, like Robin Williams, my dad loves to laugh and to make people laugh. So there’s always been a part of me that equates him with my dad, as if he were my dad’s famous doppelganger. It’s weird, I know.

And then there’s another reason that’s fairly convoluted.

I grew up with his movies, with his face on the screen. When I was little, he was Mrs. Doubtfire and, on reruns from my parents’ generation, Mork the alien. He was also Garp and a grown-up Peter Pan. Later (for me, anyway), he was John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society — my favorite character in one of my all-time favorite movies (seriously, my online handle for a long time was “dead poetess society,” it was that big of a deal for me) — and flamboyant, accommodating Armand in The Bird Cage. More recently, he was a comedian-turned-president in Man of the Year and a sensitive, downtrodden writer and father in World’s Greatest Dad, in which he was dark and sad and absolutely brilliant. I love these movies — they continue to resonate with me about the importance of humor in our lives and what it means to love, to live passionately, to be sensitive, and to be honest. I love these characters and the complexity with which Williams played them. He made them live, showing incredible emotional fluency and dexterity, and I’m grateful to him for it. They’ve influenced who I am today.

But, more than anything, it was his presence. The wonderful thing about him was that, while he was often spastic and sometimes bawdy, there was always this glimmer of genuine tenderness in him that was so magnetic. He had such kind eyes. He exuded intelligent sensitivity and a desire and respect for goodness that is rare in celebrity, especially comedians, whose witticisms are often marked by cynicism. He was uniquely intimate and vulnerable on screen. It’s that intimacy and tenderness that I’ll miss. It breaks my heart that it was central to his illness, but I’m grateful that he shared it with the world. I’m glad his soul is immortalized in his films, TV appearances, and standup comedy. I’m glad that he loved to make people laugh, and that we had a chance to give him our laughter for nearly forty years.

In some ways, he was like Dumbledore for my generation — funny, engaging, enigmatic, secretly struggling but always aiming for goodness. We never really knew him, but we felt like we did. I think that’s why it’s hitting us so hard. I’ve never seen such widespread mourning over a celebrity. With the exception of Michael Jackson, I’ve never seen so many people become so protective over a celebrity against media oversharing.

So maybe it’s not so embarrassing or even surprising to be upset about his death. He was an artist—an actor and a comedian. We take artists’ lives and deaths personally because, even though they’re strangers, they’re in our homes and lives daily—in the movies we watch, the books and magazines we read, the music we listen to, and so on. Their work is part of the fabric of our culture. Artists rely on us to sustain them while they do what they love, and we rely on them to provide us with meaning through their craft. And Williams was so authentic in everything he did, most of all in real life.

As John Keating said, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” In many ways, Robin Williams did change the world. For the better.