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?

Resepelophobia

My own term for a phobia of mine, from res meaning “object, thing” and sepelo meaning “to submerge, bury.” Or, in terms that don’t showcase my scrappy Latin scholarship, I am deeply disturbed by submerged man-made objects — shipwrecks, submarines, the undersides of floating ships, etc. I’m squeamish about the reservoir near my home (and I won’t swim in the deep parts) because I know that there is a complete ferry bridge and at least one 19th century stone house still standing at the bottom. I will never scuba dive where an old shipwreck is present, and I can’t even look at sonar images without feeling some anxiety.

Like this one showing Wyse’s Ferry Bridge at the bottom of Lake Murray (2005)

 

I’m fascinated by phobias — their sources, the mechanics of them, the names we give them, what they say about us. Phobias are marked by irrationalism, which is a trait of the unconscious, the imagination, the dreaming part of ourselves — all things that I love and spend most of my time thinking and writing about. A phobia is, to put a twist on a popular Buddhist analogy, the gnarled finger pointing to the moon of a hidden truth about a person. So I probe my fears with the hope that I’ll uncover those truths.

The RMS Titanic may be the origin of this phobia. When I was about eight years old, I watched a National Geographic documentary about the ship that showed Robert Ballard’s deep-sea footage of it. And while that documentary ignited a lifelong fascination (nearing obsession) with the Titanic, it also instilled in me a deep fear of sunken things. I’ve often envisioned what it must have been like for the people who went down with the ship, the terror and panic they must have felt at being swallowed up by something so much larger than themselves and vastly unknown, to be trapped, to drift downward, deprived of air, watching the light dim into total darkness. And when I see a submerged object, I get that same feeling of being trapped, swallowed, frozen and water-logged.

It may also have something to do with the shock of seeing something familiar in an unfamiliar place, and the confrontation with death that such an image represents — something lost, decayed, hollowed-out. I remember being told by a Mormon missionary that the Devil waits in the water, and I think that sentiment reflects the same fear in a way — that something is waiting underneath the surface, something that will consume you and cannot be controlled.

I’m even afraid of things that were once at the bottom of a body of water but have since been pulled out. Several years ago, my husband treated me to a Titanic exhibit for my birthday, and there was, among other things, a part of the hull with a second-class guest room on display, which is awesome but also deeply disturbing. While the teacups and gloves and other things I’d seen in the display cases only creeped me out (in the same way that Victorian post-mortem photos creep other people out), I felt lightheaded, tingly and weightless when confronted with the hull. It may have had something to do with the size of it, but I think it was mostly that the teacups and other things didn’t look much different than other old things with a less loaded past. The hull, however, was unmistakably from the bottom of the ocean — its exterior had the texture of petrified wood, and its edges were ragged.

But then, as I’ve said, fear doesn’t get in the way of my fascination with submerged objects. In fact, it’s part of the intrigue. While I wouldn’t toss myself into the water to swim around a sunken ship off the coast of Cancun, I’ve visited the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, forcing myself to look over the entry railing at the oily shadow of the ship that  lay beneath and all around me. I didn’t do it to conquer my fear but to test it, or rather to test myself, to see if I could stand it. It was the same at the Titanic exhibit, where I walked around the piece of the hull on display, choosing to feel the fear — that floating, hollow sensation that radiates from my core even to the tips of my fingers — rather than miss the rare opportunity to see a part of the ship. I don’t mind fear, in a way, at least not enough to be dominated by it. I’d rather walk with it, arm-in-arm.

I suppose that part of what defines a person is not only what s/he fears but what that person does with that fear, the perspective one has of it. Fear is a doorway between the conscious and the unconscious; it is primal and necessary. By looking into the face of our fears — not to dominate or destroy them, but to examine them — we peer into a deep part of ourselves that would otherwise remain unknowable. So I gaze into my fear, seek to know it and live with it, so that I can more deeply know myself, and so I can experience that loss of control that comes with fear and let it deepen my sense of reality, let in a little darkness to contrast the bright sureness of other things.

Not the End of Solitude

I recently read a great blog article about solitude by artist Deborah Barlow, written in response to an article by critic William Deresiewicz (entitled “The End of Solitude”), who claims that the young people of today (i.e. my generation) are both solitude- and intimacy-phobic due to the prevalence of social media. Read Barlow’s article (and get the link to Deresiewicz’s article) here.

I think Deresiewicz would consider me one of those anomalies he briefly mentioned, as I’m in my mid-20s and require a large amount of actual solitude each day to be both happy and productive. Unlike the young people Deresiewicz referred to, I write alone and hardly keep my phone near enough to type 100 texts a day. My husband (a photographer, graphic designer and musician) and I aren’t afraid of turning off the computers, cell phones and TV, and we value the time we spend camping and hiking in the woods. And, like Thoreau, we tend to stand alone. But I don’t think we’re more anomalous in our generation than artists and writers of the past.

A large component of an artist’s or writer’s personality has always been the need to be heard; it’s why we exhibit and sell our work. Most of us don’t create in order to keep it to ourselves; even Thoreau wrote to be published. It’s just that the need to be heard takes a removed form for the creative person — that is, we’re more comfortable expressing ourselves in writing or art than schmoozing at parties. Social media, like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, provide that same opportunity: to connect indirectly, to communicate within solitude. I don’t think the general proliferation of voices via social networking sites makes us more vapidly social or less solitude-loving as artists and writers of this generation than in previous generations. And it’s always been the small-numbered strangers — spiritual ascetics, writers, artists — who have been the solitude-seekers. Even Deresiewicz admitted that solitude “has undoubtedly never been the province of more than a few.” So yes, we are few who seek out solitude, who don’t hide from “Thoreau’s darkness,” but I doubt that’s a new development owing to the general population’s greater access to venues where our voices can be heard.

But what do you think? Has social networking created a phobia of silence and solitude?