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 Plain Thing” (Flash Fiction Friday)

I doubt this is going to become a weekly thing, but today is Friday and this is some flash fiction I wrote, hence the parenthetical subtitle. Anyway, I’d love it if you’d read this and tell me what you think. Thanks!

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They kept their voices low, her mother and father, and the sheriff, too, when he showed up. They didn’t want her to hear. They drank coffee in the kitchen and their voices were dark, as if there was a shadow lurking in them somewhere. Luckily, she had good ears and could make out almost all of what they said, standing where she was in the doorway between the hall and living room and leaning against the edge of wall that divided the two.

They said that there was a severed cow head in the pasture, just outside the edge of the forest. It wasn’t one of theirs. That was the strangest thing, her father said. He couldn’t understand why someone would just dump a thing like that in someone’s field in the middle of the night, way off the road.

The sheriff said they must have carried it, too, because there were no tire tracks.

Her mother said it made her sick to think of something like that.

It was Saturday morning, late fall, and the wind blew a shower of yellow-brown leaves from the tree in the front yard. She could hear their soughing through the window. The leaves looked like butterflies as they fell and sunlight trembled on the grass like a living thing.

She stood up straight and went to her bedroom, climbed over her unmade bed and opened her window. It was especially cold in the shade. She put on her boots and a sweater, popped out the screen, and climbed out. She was still in her flannel nightgown and she crept across the backyard, pretending she was a cat, then climbed over the fence and into the wide golden field. The air was earth-sweet and the frosted dew on the close-cut grass crunched under her boots as she ran. Halfway across the field, she thought she heard a far-away, ringing cry that might have been her mother’s voice.

The head was just a small, black lump in the distance until the final few strides, when it finally became what it was, as if it had popped into existence at the last moment to prove itself to her. It was lying sideways; its eyes were closed; and the mouth was open, its flat white teeth showing and the tongue sparkling with frost, lolling out for one last lick of grass. The skin was shredded at the nape. The meat and bones were glossy and smooth with varying shades of red and pink and fat-white, like the petals on a marbled rose, and the tag on its ear was blue. It barely stank.

She had expected to feel something bigger. There was a tingling in her feet, like they were being tickled, and a sense that she was made of air, that she was small and floating inside herself somehow. But she wasn’t afraid and she didn’t feel sick. She wondered if maybe it was because it didn’t seem real, but it did. It was plain as anything. She felt sorry for the cow; there was a sore feeling in her center, just above her stomach, and it made her feel better when she felt it. But it went in and out, and it was out more than in, and when it was out, there was nothing to replace it.

She wondered if it would prove something to touch it. She squatted down, the cold creeping up under her nightgown, and reached out and ran her fingers over the fur. She didn’t want to touch the meat. The fur felt both smooth and coarse, and aside from it being very cold, there was nothing different about the feel of it from a live cow. Again, she waited for something to come and knock into her, but there was nothing. Somehow death had turned out to be a plain thing.

She sat down and stretched out her legs, her feet on either side of the head, and felt the hard yellow grass scratch her skin where it was exposed. She sat there until her father came and picked her up by her shoulders and made her stand. She could feel the fear inside him slip out when he asked her what the hell she thought she was doing. It made her ashamed of herself; she couldn’t look him in the face.

Halloween: A Celebration of Death and Rebirth

Halloween, short for All Hallows Evening (–> Hallow-even’–> Hallowe’en) is best known as a festival for spirits, the night when the veil between the worlds of the living and dead are thinnest. Celtic pagans call it Samhain (pronounced ‘sah-win, ‘sow-in, or sown with the ow pronounced like the onomatopoeia), which means “summer’s end” in Old Irish. It marks the beginning of the “dark half” of the year when the natural world dies and the days grow short. To keep at bay the spirits who would emerge as vegetation shriveled and animals were going to slaughter, people would leave offerings outside their doors, light bonfires, and disguise themselves in the costumes of ghosts and goblins. These are the origins of our Halloween traditions.

Interestingly, many scholars believe that the “dark half” of the year preceded the “light half” in the old Celtic calendar, making Samhain the Celtic pagan New Year. This juxtaposition of death and new beginnings is incredibly powerful, not only as a symbol of the unending cycle of life and death, but also as a metaphor for personal reinvention and rebirth. One doesn’t need to be religious in order to appreciate the regenerative symbolism of traditional Samhain rites, such as walking between two bonfires — a ritual of purification — and throwing the bones of slaughtered livestock into a fire in an effort, I assume, to symbolically and literally cast away death. The latter reminds me, in a way, of the temple burning ritual held at burns across the world (Burning Man being the most famous). Throughout the festival, burners bring photos, letters, various objects reminding them of loved ones or precious or painful memories, and on the last night (or, at the Georgia burn Alchemy, the last sunrise), the temple goes up in flames. It’s a time of both communion with the past and of rebirth — not by burying the past, but releasing it. Likewise, Samhain offers a night to both honor the dead (be it loved ones or old regrets) and celebrate the promise of new life come morning.