Talking about the universal human experience of death is a good thing. In the new book, Michael Hebb, Let’s Talk about Death Over Dinner: An Invitation and Guide to Life’s Most Important Conversation (2018), the author argues for conversations about death as part of gatherings around food or other familial settings. The author provides suggestions for constructively starting and ending the conversation at death dinners. He emphasizes that framing the issue of death is the key. The meal is the key occasion, but other occasions will do, and patience is essential. This challenge and opportunity is universal for all humans.
The book’s tone is bright and easy. The structure of the book provides occasion for short stories about particular death dinners to illustrate how flexible and engaging these conversations are. The participants are uniformly grateful for the opportunity for safe conversation about this universal experience of death.
There is no reference to Quakers, or even much to religion generally, in the framing and implementation of death dinners. In a better world, death dinners and conversations would be the norm and standard, actively facilitated by religious communities. Quaker meetings should take the lead in institutionalizing death dinners.
The author provides endnotes, a useful index, and a list of resources and readings regarding the subject of death and readings.
Quakers: The author suggests ways to initiate the death dinner conversation with stories of the actual experience of all kinds of groupings, in many cultures, and many age groups around the world. Based upon the testimony in this interesting group of stories, these are some prompting questions for initiating conversation on this important subject to death around the table for Quakers:
- If you had only 30 days left to live, how would you spend those days?
- What foods do you remember as part of the life of someone who has died?
- If you were to design your own funeral or memorial service, what would it look like?
- What is appropriate medical intervention at the end-of-life from your experience?
- What is your experience with creating a will, an advanced care directive, a durable power of attorney for your healthcare, and power of attorney for your financial affairs?
- What is the most significant end-of–life experience of which you have been a close part?
- Why is it difficult to talk about death?
- How do you talk to important children in your life about death?
- What are the elements of your belief in an afterlife?
- In what circumstances have you considered physician assistance in your death?
- What music do you want played at your funeral?
- What is your experience with organ donation?
- Based on your experience, what does a good death look like?
- What do you want done with your body?
- Are there certain deaths that are harder to speak of?
- If you could choose your lifespan, how many years would you add to your Life?
- What do you want your legacy to be?
- How long should good grieving take?
- What would you request for your last meal?
- How do you want to feel on your deathbed?
- What would you want people to say about you after your death?
This is not a book to be read in one sitting or from start to finish. The book is best for dipping into. It is a kind of guide to reflection. The important idea is that the death dinner is a practical and comfortable means to have conversation on death subjects and the confidence that the participants will be grateful for the opportunity. Dinner conversations about death can free us from cultural taboos in a constructive way, in all cultures.
Another way to start or end a death dinner is by acknowledging those who have died. There are no easy answers. Death dinners need to be emotionally safe. At the end of the dinner, consider asking people to express gratitude for something that the person on their left or right said during the death dinner.
Consider the development of new rituals appropriate to the group that was gathered. Consent and advance notice of the conversation subject are the keys. The inclusion of children with advanced notice, if they want to participate is a great boon to good parenting. Listening is the essential skill.
Michael. Hebb, Let’s Talk about Death Over Dinner: An Invitation and Guide to Life’s Most Important Conversation (2018)