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?

The Magic of Creation: Remedios Varo

Okay, it’s been a while. The past couple of months or so have been pretty stressful emotionally and mentally, and I found it necessary to turn inward and shut the external world out for the most part. So I really wasn’t thinking at all about writing a new blog post (not that I post prolifically anyway) or spending much time communicating at all, except to my husband, family and a few close friends. Nevertheless, that old guilt about having a blog and not using it has been quietly building up inside me. So, in order to quell the guilt while expressing some of my current preoccupations, I’ve decided to showcase an artist who is a new (very) favorite mine.

Born in Spain in 1908, Remedios Varo (full name: María de los Remedios Varo Uranga) spent her early childhood traveling around Spain and North Africa, living wherever her father, a hydraulic engineer, found work. Her family finally settled in Madrid, and while there, she studied painting at the Academia de San Fernando. She left Spain for Paris in the early 1930s to immerse herself in Surrealism, but returned to Spain in 1935 to live in Barcelona and joined the art group Logicophobiste. Varo returned to Paris in 1937 to escape the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and in 1941, she was forced again to relocate, this time to Mexico to escape the Nazi occupation of France. She lived in Latin America for the rest of her life, becoming friends with fellow artists Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and others, especially fellow ex-pat Leonora Carrington. Varo’s beautifully haunting style matured throughout the 1950s and reached its height in the early 1960s. She died in 1963 of a heart attack. Despite having a well-developed, distinct style, Varo is not well known. Male Surrealists (and others in the art community) often considered the work of their female colleagues to be inferior, making it difficult for female artists to promote their work, and so many Surrealist and similarly aligned female artists like Varo suffered in obscurity. Only recently has an interest in their work begun to develop.

Varo’s paintings are highly allegorical with a wide range of influences, including pre-Columbian art, Surrealism, Sufism and the I-Ching as well as the theories of analyst Carl Jung, medieval German theologian Meister Eckhart and Russian theosophist Helena Blavatsky. Varo viewed all of these sources as avenues to self-realization and the transformation of consciousness. Her paintings portray fantastic, often female or ambiguously feminine characters in isolated, confined environments, usually in some act of creation, as in Creation of the Birds (1957). Much of her work is interpreted as an expression of her frustration at being marginalized as a woman and as a female artist — themes that are certainly expressed in paintings like Visit to the Plastic Surgeon (1960) and Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst (1961).

But what interests me most about Varo’s paintings are not their social or political statements, but her emphasis on the mysteries and potential of the mind, especially as it finds expression in the arts. The creation of art is rendered as a kind of magic in her paintings, depicted as both a mechanical and supremely natural process. It is a way to both act on the external world and transform and nourish the self. It is a kind of alchemy, taking base materials (for Varo, masonite, oils, brushes, colors and shapes; or for me, leaves of paper and a pen, a laptop and combinations of letters that essentially mean nothing except whatever meaning we give them) and manipulating those elements to create something new and meaningful, to express the ineffable.

I discovered Varo’s work not too long ago (around the same time that the difficulties I mentioned above arose, or maybe a little before) and, in turning inward, I’ve been considering the same kinds of things that Varo depicts in her work. Many people are suspicious of fantasy, but it’s such a necessary tool for exploring ourselves, the world around us and the connections between the two.

Below are several examples of Remedios Varo’s work; click on the images to view them larger. For more information about Remedios Varo and her paintings, here’s a helpful link. And, as always, you’re welcome to leave comments at the bottom of the page.

Creation of the Birds - 1959

Visit to the Plastic Surgeon - 1960

Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst - 1960

Solar Music - 1961

Emptiness and Mystery

In an email conversation with a Christian friend of mine, we discussed some basic Taoist concepts and explored the relationship between Taoism and Christianity. I think some good things were said, so I’ve decided to post portions of my half (or 3/4, since I tend to get carried away) of the conversation here. The below isn’t all, but is enough for the moment; I’ll post the rest later on.

On Emptiness:
I agree that empty things are useful because they can be filled — emptiness is their substance (rather than being filled with their own solid substance), which makes them more useful than things that can’t be filled. A [good] image to explain this is a wooden bowl — it’s useful because of the lack of wood in the center that allows people to put soup or rice or whatever into it. If it were full of wood, rather than empty, it would just be a solid wooden mound with no purpose. So, in terms of people, being empty means letting go of your own desires and selfishness and ambition […] so you can harmonize with the rest of the world; you can be “filled” by other people and learn to make your way in the world without creating conflict, instead of struggling against the grain to have your own way. There’s a strong survival component in Taoism because of the era in which it originated — the Warring States Period in China, where everyone was fighting with everyone else, change was rampant, and you never really knew who was the friend or foe of your people. So, from that perspective, there’s a practical side to being malleable or “empty.” As I’ve come to understand it, Lao Tzu advocates staying empty in order to be filled ceaselessly, being open to taking on new ideas and ways of life without holding onto them. So, like the bowl, the Taoist sage allows him- or herself to be filled, but also allows him- or herself to be emptied again. It allows for a free flow of ideas without attaching one’s ego to them. It’s a way to have peace in any situation and is also a practical survival mechanism, should that be necessary. Does that make sense?

I think [Taoists] do prefer emptiness over fullness, but only if [they’re] forced to choose between one or the other. Taoism seeks balance, above all, so it’s not considered ideal (or even practical) to be completely empty or completely full. Just like it’s not good either to starve or to eat so much that you feel nauseous — it’s better to eat just enough that you’re comfortable. The rationale for choosing emptiness over fullness is that (here comes yet another metaphor) being at the bottom of a mountain is safer than being at the very top. Once one reaches the top-most point of something — success, celebrity, love, depression, literal height — there’s only one direction left to travel: down. But if you’re at the bottom, there’s always room to travel up and, if you fall, it hurts less. Emptiness is good for the mind, especially in meditation, because it’s a state of purity in which one can just experience life, without all the hang-ups of being human — struggle, worry, painful love, consuming desire, sadness, etc. But even complete emptiness can’t be maintained all the time, so a state of balance — wavering between more-full and more-empty — is best.

On Thinking About the Tao and Other Big Questions:
You’ve made a good point. I don’t think that one shouldn’t think about the Tao, either, and I don’t think that Lao Tzu would have considered not thinking about the Tao a “rule” of Taoism. I think it’s a lot like thinking about God and why certain things happen — it’s a mystery; no one can possibly comprehend God or God’s plan. So while it might be soothing (or just fun) to try to rationalize certain things, and while it might be useful to seek out knowledge where it can be found, one has to keep in mind that there will always be mysteries. And it’s good, I think, to respect mystery, even to love it. It’s good to acknowledge that blank spot in human wisdom that can’t possibly be filled. It’s humbling. Still, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask questions, to wonder and search, even if it leads us nowhere but staring mystery in the face.

The Winter Solstice Lunar Eclipse: Surface and Symbol

We stayed awake until 3:30 this morning to watch the lunar eclipse. Since it was the first time that it’s fallen on the same day as the winter solstice in nearly 400 years, I insisted on seeing it and, though my husband Eric was exhausted and had to wake up four hours later for work, he stayed up with me. Unfortunately, it was cloudy. Still, we did get to see a little of it and I think it was worth staying up for. We first went out around 2:00 AM and stood in the driveway for fifteen minutes or so, staring at the sky and waiting for holes in the thick blanket of cloud to pass over the moon. After catching several glimpses of it, half-lit and half in shadow, we felt mostly satisfied and went to bed. Around 3:00 AM, my sister sent me a text that said she was watching the eclipse, so I woke Eric and we went into the office at the front of the house, pulled up the blinds, and searched the still-cloudy sky until, finally, we saw the hazy, fully eclipsed moon, brown-red with just a sliver of white on the edge. We stayed there by the window, sitting cross-legged like little kids, craning our necks until they cramped, and then holding them up with our hands until we were too tired to stay awake and went back to bed.

It’s always been important to me to catch rare celestial phenomena like this, to view something historic that hasn’t been seen by many others. It makes me feel closer to the past, more a part of the fabric of history, united for a moment with the last people to have seen it in 1638. Moments like this are a large part of what makes life so wonderful and worthwhile — seeing great, unusual things that we have played no part in creating, small and powerless as we are. It’s in these moments — in the silence and darkness, faced with something beautiful and strange — that I sense life’s mystery most acutely.

Oscar Wilde wrote in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “All art is at once surface and symbol.” Life, too, is at once surface and symbol: changing seasons represent the cycle of life and death for cultures the world over, as does the cycle of the moon, slowly growing until it reaches its fullest point, then slowly diminishing. Even the smallest wilting flower is a symbol of something else: life’s beautiful, inevitable transience. For a long time, people have considered winter a time of  hardship and death, and for good reason: vegetation withers; livestock are slaughtered; the days are short and the nights long. A total lunar eclipse — which occurs when the moon passes through the center of the earth’s shadow and, due to the effects of the earth’s atmosphere, turns the moon red — was an omen of evil for many people through the ages. Yet darkness doesn’t have to signify evil, even in death or times of hardship. For some, like myself, it’s purely visual mystery, and so the onset of winter and the lunar eclipse are symbols of the unknown. As such, they signify a time to contemplate mystery — not to resolve it, but to enjoy its presence, to appreciate not knowing.