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 Note On Understanding

 

Family. Kristin Vestgard, oil on canvas, 2006.

The following is an abridged version of an editorial I wrote for American Athenaeum Magazine’s “The Understanders” issue in Winter 2012.

The summer before last, a high school friend of my husband, who was also becoming a friend of mine, asked me one night, out of the blue, “How are you so nice to people?” I was surprised by the question and didn’t really know how to answer it, but I managed to say, “Well, I think I understand people.” He responded with a laugh and said, “I guess that’s the difference between you and me. I don’t understand people at all.” It was such a casual, in-passing kind of conversation that I would have forgotten it, except that that was the last night I ever saw him, and it was one of the last things he ever said to me. A little more than a month later, he committed suicide.

I realize this is a macabre, intimate story to share. I don’t mean to be confessional, and I certainly don’t mean to be macabre. But I think that memory is important here because it highlights a significant but not often enough considered aspect of the theme of this issue: the fundamental value of understanding for one’s own salvation.

When we speak of compassion and understanding, we often think of it as a kind of votive offering, a sacrifice, something we give of ourselves to others. And there’s truth in that. True understanding is deconstructive. It requires us to break down those presumptions and hard beliefs that act as walls to divide us from other people– especially those people whom we consider our enemies — and to reconsider our world and the events that happen within it from a perspective beyond ourselves. Doing so requires humility in accepting that our perceptions of the world and our understanding even of ourselves is subjective; it also requires a nimble imagination to go beyond our particular experiences and modes of thinking. Understanding is challenging and too often taken for granted.

Even so, understanding doesn’t have to be perfect to have its effect. Often, simply acknowledging that another person has a completely different frame of reference that we may never fully comprehend is enough to humble us, to make us reconsider (or consider for the first time) our sense of our own righteousness. What I meant when I told my friend that I think I understand people was that I understand, however imperfectly, that every person I meet has known pain and that pain is very often the cause of the hurtful, sometimes truly terrible things people do. It doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t often feel frustrated — even enraged — by others’ actions and words, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I haven’t sometimes hurt other people. But I do carry with me that glimpse of wisdom in knowing that there is a common thread that binds us all together and that this thread is, macabre as it sounds, pain. This unifying thread reminds me to be kind as often as I can, in whatever small or great ways I find. It also reminds me to forgive and move past the pain I experience. Understanding our common humanity — our sensitivity and frailty — makes us able to use that pain to heal rather than as a weapon.

Carl Jung’s first mandala

As I’ve said, healing ourselves through understanding is inherently a part of that forward movement. This is something that my friend unfortunately never realized. To him, his pain was unique and unbearable. He didn’t understand that others had felt similar pain before, that it was something we keep mostly hidden, as he had done. When we can’t perceive the suffering of others, we are left only with ourselves and our own heavy pain. We are engulfed by it, and it makes us feel supremely, desperately lonely.

Because many of us don’t often share our pains with each other face-to-face — perhaps we’re ashamed to; maybe others discourage it, finding it uncomfortable or even frightening; or perhaps the opportunity never really comes up — it is often through art that we learn to understand and find understanding in others. James Baldwin wrote in The Price of the Ticket: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” Reading opens us up to a larger community — however remote in space and time — that is always there, and through it we realize that we are never truly alone. Reading makes it possible for us to experience the pain of others, helps us begin to understand experiences that may be far removed from our own and otherwise inaccessible to us, and to find the common threads between our own and others’ stories. This connection through words is what Baldwin relished. …

It is a gift to ourselves to understand — to see the humanity in others, to see ourselves in them and, reflexively, them in ourselves. This is how enemies cease to be enemies, how strangers grow close and become part of a growing sense of a human family. It allows us not only to become kinder to others but also to ourselves. Understanding makes it possible for us to persist in spite of our struggles, in spite of our pain, because we know that others have been before where we are now.

I hope that the stories and poetry in this issue help us all to do just that: to be challenged, to be seized and opened wide, to take in alien thoughts, emotions, and experiences, to be made freshly vulnerable to pain, and therefore to be transformed, made greater and more understanding, and to be healed. Because we can be healed by understanding, in recognizing and accepting the pain that lies in others and in learning to identify and love the humanity revealed by that pain. Through that, we can be re-made universal and whole.

To purchase the issue, click here.

Of Spring and What It Means

It’s spring now — the azaleas and dogwoods in our yard are in bloom; the little songbirds are singing their mating calls; a haze of pollen hangs in the air, swirls in the wind, coats everything in sight with its green-yellow hue; and, on March 22, two days after the vernal equinox, I gave birth to our son, Espen Avery.

Eric and Espen

My husband with our son

I’d wanted to have a natural birth, but after 14 hours in labor (and having been awake for 26 hours because I’d worked the day my labor started) and only dilating to 5 cm, in spite of the intense contractions occurring about 45 seconds apart and coupling, I was too stressed and exhausted to go any longer the way I was. So I had an epidural, which was a beautiful relief — an hour later, I’d dilated to 8 cm and I was finally able to get some rest. Nine hours later (with an hour and a half of pushing time), Espen was born at 4:59 PM.

Change is always a little bittersweet for me, no matter how much I’d looked forward to it, planned for it, even needed it. There’s a feeling of loss — of my old self, my old life — and a cloud of anxiety about the future that I must fight early on in the change process. I felt that way when I started grad school and attended my first residency; I felt it when I started my (now defunct) copy writing job. And, as guilty as it makes me feel, I have felt it now and then as a new mother.

One would think that I would handle change better — even whole-heartedly embrace it — since I grew up in an Army family that relocated every few years throughout my childhood. It’s not so much physical change that bothers me — I love a change of scenery, and the few close attachments I form to people and locations are never enough to keep me stationary. It’s the emotional and mental changes that I find most challenging. I think that’s true for all people — growth is difficult, anxiety-ridden. Transformation is painful. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. The opposite, in fact. That’s what gets me through those periods of anxiety — the knowledge that they will pass, and that growth-oriented change (which motherhood inevitably is) is always ultimately rewarding.

Espen and me

It seems that an essential part of the human experience — and life in general — is transformation through pain. Religions the world over bear stories of transformation through death (the most dramatic form of pain) — Jesus had to die to absolve mankind of sin and return to Heaven; Odin had to hang himself from the Tree of Life to gain infinite knowledge; Odysseus traveled to the realm of the dead to learn from Tiresias the wisdom he needed to return home; Ushas, the Hindu goddess of dawn, was imprisoned by demons in the cave called Vala and liberated from it by Indra.

In life, childbirth is the most obvious and stark example of painful transformation, but any transformation involves some kind of pain. I don’t know why this is, but it is. And, as with childbirth, it seems that the most effective way to go through the process of transformation is to accept the pain, even embrace it. That’s how I was able to endure the first 14 hours of labor without reprieve — until it became clear that it was going nowhere fast and I desperately needed some rest.

Which brings me to another, seemingly contradictory (but not really) lesson I learned through labor — that there’s no shame in acknowledging and accepting one’s limitations and seeking aid in mediating pain. It’s a different kind of strength that’s required to swallow pride and admit need, but it is certainly a valuable, sometimes necessary strength. I relied on that wisdom a few days later when the baby blues, a different kind of pain, set in and I needed help getting enough sleep, not feeling guilty whenever I wasn’t with the baby, and overall battling the overwhelming feelings of fear and doubt I felt about my ability to handle the stress of raising a newborn. Fortunately, my husband and mom have been here to help, and I just needed the strength to admit when I needed them to do so. And, again, knowing that that pain was part of the process of becoming a new mother was a huge aid in enduring and getting through it.

These lessons came at a symbolically significant time — the passing from harsh, barren, cold winter to life-bearing spring. Spring is a season of new and regained life, of growth and transformations of all kinds. It’s a season of new light, and light is always preceded (and even defined) by darkness. It’s the darkness that makes the light so brilliant.

The beautiful result

Nightmares in Oil: The Art of Francis Bacon

I first found out about Francis Bacon in an oil painting class during my sophomore year of undergrad. Around midterm, the professor gave us a list of artists’ names and told us to pick one, study that person’s work, choose one piece to recreate and then do an original painting in the style of that artist. I went home that day and Googled each artist; I remember Lucian Freud — another great Modern painter and friend of Bacon — was on that list as well, but I can’t remember the others. Bacon’s work both terrified and thrilled me (it seems that Burke was right about the sublime, yes?), so I signed up next to his name on the roster.

A little background info on Bacon: Born in Dublin to parents of British descent, Bacon (1909-1992) was, from childhood, both asthmatic and effeminate — two seemingly trivial traits that shaped his life. His father, a racehorse trainer and veteran captain of the Boer War, sought to turn Francis into the British masculine ideal, forcing him to go hunting in spite of Francis’ violent allergies to both dogs and horses. Father and son struggled with each other throughout their lives; the elder Bacon was often enraged by his son’s effeminacy and affection for dressing up, and ultimately disowned him — exiling him from the family estate — after catching Francis admiring himself in front of a mirror, wearing his mother’s underclothes. Over the years, Bacon lived in varying levels of poverty, relying when he could on the support of older, richer men (even working for a time as a “gentleman’s companion”), as well as whatever menial work he could find, until garnering success as an interior designer and decorator. He didn’t begin painting regularly until he was in his 30s.

It seems to me that it’s precisely those beginning 30 or so years of pain and struggle that gave his work, as the Wikipedia article about him puts it, that “bold, austere, graphic and emotionally raw” quality. Bacon was fascinated by disease, the Crucifixion, and hanging meat, and was a firm Existentialist, having spent much of his 20s reading Nietzsche. He sought to represent in his work the violence of life and yet described himself as “optimistic about nothing” — that is, optimistic about everything, particularly the little things in life that are often taken for granted, that are considered “nothing.” Wikipedia makes a very perceptive connection: “[Bacon’s] case of asthma can give reason to the constant ‘optimistic about nothing’ ethos… unlike most, he valued entirely such a seemingly trivial thing as breathing.” It’s that passion for life — all of it, every moment — paired with his images’ haunting, dreamy horror that draws me to his work again and again. It appeals to the raw, emotionally violent part of me, which I think resides in all of us, however small and hidden in the darkest recesses of our subconsciouses. The following are some of my favorite Bacon works. (In the interest of space, I’ve made the images small and have not captioned their titles. Scroll over the images for their titles and click on them for larger views.)

And, for the curious, my humble tribute done in oil painting class:

For snippets from a great interview with Bacon, check out this page. And for more work by Bacon, click on this link.