A dinner to discuss the end of life

When people gather around a table with food, in most instances conversations tend toward lighter or topical issues, like gossip or politics. But if that’s too depressing, here’s another idea as a conversation starter: mortality and our inevitable demise. 

What happens to your soul when you die? What regrets would you have if you knew you were approaching the end of your life? Is death something you fear? Such questions often seem off-limits, especially with strangers. Concern about the prevalence of our fear of facing our mortality has led Michael Hebb, a Seattle-based entrepreneur and former restaurant owner, to launch an international movement called Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death.

In 2012, Hebb met two doctors in the dining car of a train traveling between Portland and Seattle. They spoke to Hebb about the end of life and presented Hebb with a startling statistic: Nearly 75 percent of Americans want to die at home, yet only 25 percent of them do. That’s when Hebb realized the failure to have these conversations creates an incredible burden on the health care system in the United States.

Hebb wanted to do something about it, so he enlisted the help of his graduate students at the University of Washington. They designed a website and recruited doctors and spiritual leaders to join the cause. As a result, thousands of so-called Death Over Dinner parties have been held since Hebb first made his call to action.

Michael Hebb explains why he created the movement called Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death. 

Last month, a Death Over Dinner party took place at Dudley Market in Venice, a hip gourmet restaurant owned by chef Jesse Barber and his wife, Celia, both longtime friends of Hebb’s. They served an eight-course, family-style meal. Before it began, about four dozen attendees mingled, introducing themselves while sipping wine.

“I’m a little scared,” said Amanda Katz, a local artist and curator. “I lost someone this year, an uncle. He was like a father figure.”

But, Katz said, she was looking forward to the dinner.

“It’s an opportunity to practice your boundaries and how to move through the world as an open and porous person” while also protecting yourself, she said.

This was not fashion entrepreneur Ethan Lipsitz’s first “death dinner.” He had hosted one at home with family and a few close friends.

“It’s this thing we don’t talk about, but once we start, it flows,” he said. Death is “a daily experience. We experience death constantly, and to become more comfortable with it is important to me.”

Jews remember the dead in reciting the Kaddish prayer at Yizkor services held four times a year and during yahrzeit commemorations. But Judaism emphasizes life on Earth rather than the afterlife, said Rabbi Carla Howard, founder and executive director of Jewish Healing Center-Los Angeles, who was one of the dinner’s attendees.

“Most of the time, when people need to find out about death, it’s at the moment that they need it,” Howard said. “You’re not always in the right frame of mind to read text or approach it intellectually or make decisions when you’re forced to. So the idea is that dealing with end of life is something that should be part of our entire life spectrum.”

Hebb welcomed the attendees, then introduced Ira Byock, a physician specializing in palliative care. Byock has written extensively about end-of-life matters and serves as chief medical officer of the Providence Institute for Human Caring.

Byock “has stood for a care model, an empathic model, and just a presence and a complete turning toward what it means for our culture to do this well,” Hebb said.

“We’re all very diverse people, but the commonality that we have is that we’re mortal. And in facing the fact of our mortality, life paradoxically becomes more rich,” Byock told the group.

Hebb called the death dinner “actually just a well-disguised conversation about life and what we want. Death, for me, is this great mirror. Looking at it, and thinking about it, is one of the best ways, maybe the best way, to get access to how you want to live.”

After that preamble, the attendees at each table lit a memorial candle while sharing the name of someone who is no longer alive and had a positive impact on their lives. I talked about my grandmother, Masha Landesman, a Holocaust survivor with a fiery personality who prepared traditional Polish feasts and seemed to know everyone in Ashkelon, the Israeli city where she raised my father and aunt. Tembi Locke, an actress sitting at my table, also remembered her grandmother, who was born in 1911 in the segregated South.

Each table was given a list of questions meant to prompt conversation. The first was, If you could have someone (living or dead) sing at your funeral, who would it be and what would they sing?

One of my tablemates, Frank Kozakowski, principal at Loyola High School, said he would want his favorite high school coach, Mike Lynch, to sing “Amazing Grace.” 

A young woman sitting next to me, Carla Fernandez, said she’d want a Spanish lullaby, the same one she’d sung at her father’s funeral. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR said she officiates a lot of funerals and struggles with how they are conducted. She said she was inspired by President Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” during a eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the South Carolina state senator and pastor murdered along with eight others at a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015. 

 “It felt like that’s what we needed,” Brous said. “I don’t want words, only singing. I just want it to be a beautiful, wholehearted song.”

Locke said she’d want “Hallelujah” sung on the way to her funeral and “Fly Me to the Moon” performed afterward, in the tradition of a New Orleans jazz funeral.

The next prompt asked, What would you want your epitaph to be? “He tried to make the world a better place,” Byock suggested. “Igniting the Fire of Love,” Locke said. “Go home,” Kozakowski offered, explaining that people should spend their days among the living, not the deceased. 

Byock’s wife, Yvonne Corbeil, is also a palliative care professional. She said she’d want her tombstone to say, “She strove to live in the eternal now.” 

Fernandez said her father’s tombstone is inscribed with the musical notes to Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” She had thought of it as a joyful song, but after he died, she realized the lyrics are much darker.

The prompt that inspired the most discussion was: If you were injured in an earthquake or other natural disaster and knew you had only three minutes left to live, what would you worry you’d left undone?

Jennifer Kozakowski, Frank’s wife, who serves as executive director for the Providence Institute for Human Caring, said she’d be worried about not seeing her kids’ milestones. 

“If you miss opportunities to tell people how you feel about them, you’re young and think you’ll get to it,” she said. “In our society, to look someone in the eye and tell them you love them, it’s very unnerving and countercultural. I refuse to bow to that. You need them to appreciate how you feel.”

Byock turned to Corbeil and said, “I’ve never given you enough flowers.”

Corbeil recounted her own brush with death — a near-drowning experience a few years ago. 

“I knew I was drowning, but it felt peaceful,” she recalled. “I put it in my calendar every month to remember. There was no fear, no panic. It was like a dress rehearsal for death.”

Locke remembered being at her husband’s deathbed and asking him to fill out birthday cards for their then-7-year-old daughter to give her every year until her 18th birthday. 

“He couldn’t do it. He asked if he could do it later,” she said. “I kept the cards for two years after his death. I feel ‘current’ with all the adults in my life, but not with my daughter. She asks me, ‘If you die, I’m an orphan, right?’ I told her I plan to be around to see her grandchildren get married.”

Fernandez mentioned that she’s recently adopted a dog and wonders who would take her dog if she died suddenly. “My friends and I talk about our Tinder dates and how we’re unhappy in our tech careers,” she said, but asking a friend to inherit her dog feels like too much to ask.

The final prompt was, Where do we go after we leave this life? That sparked a discussion about the soul and its existence outside the body. 

Brous discussed the confounding cross-cultural similarities in the afterlife. Children who have had near-death experiences similarly describe a white light at the end of a tunnel and a person they loved and had died standing at the end with open arms.

“Our lack of understanding is not an excuse to not wrestle with it and engage with it,” Brous said. 

Byock, who was raised Jewish, described his vision of the afterlife as more Buddhist. 

“The energy which becomes matter can be interpreted as love,” he said. “What may not persist is individuality. I do think there is mind without brain, as the Buddhists would say.”

“Having faith certainly gives you a leg up” when facing death, Byock said. “There’s a difference between faith and belief.”

“If you have faith in the what will be, that’s enough to carry you over the threshold,” Corbeil added.

Fernandez asked the group, “How can we create more space in our lives for the irrational, for things we can’t comprehend?”

After Fernandez’s father died, she co-founded a nonprofit for 20- and 30-somethings who had lost a parent. That group, The Dinner Party, has helped organize potluck dinners in more than 80 cities around the world.

“It feels like there’s an opening in the last five years to talk about death,” Fernandez said. “If I can be more open and transparent about what it’s like to lose someone, it shows friends that when their parents get sick, there’ll be a safety net. We put our heads in the sand when it comes to death, and there are really tragic ripple effects because of that.”

In closing, Hebb recounted an unusual birthday party his friends had organized for him. When he turned 40, they held a living funeral. While he lay in a casket and listened to his friends eulogize him, he said, “the hardest part was accepting love. We don’t get any training for that.” 

The dinner ended with each attendee turning to the person to their left and sharing something they appreciated about that person. I acknowledged to Fernandez that it must have taken a lot of courage and compassion to found an organization that helps others get support they need to mourn. Sharing that compliment was harder than I expected. It is rare to talk so openly with a stranger. 

Since the dinner, I have found myself thinking more about how I prioritize my life and considering what matters most if I live with awareness of my mortality — spending time with family and friends, talking openly with people I love, doing work that feels rewarding. 

As Hebb said at the dinner, death is a mirror for life. By thinking about how we want to die, we learn more about how we really want to live.

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