Talking About Death Over Dinner

Posted by Lisa Fortini-Campbell, Volunteer

Talking About Death Over Dinner

Death Over Dinner.” No, it’s not the title of a new “whodunit,” but rather the name of a nonprofit organization whose mission is to encourage the one conversation most of us never have: the one about death.

They have a point. When I was young, my friends and I talked endlessly about the meaning of life. But we never talked about death. We still don’t. If we come close, it’s only to talk about the paperwork—advanced directives, living wills, revocable trusts—but not what it means to die. No doubt, we will approach the issue when someone close to us nears the end of life, but in the midst of caring for their needs or coping emotionally ourselves, we may not be capable of pondering such a big question.

So, I decided to do as the organization suggests and host a Death Over Dinner party at my house. I went to the website, Deathoverdinner.org, for help. There, I found helpful tips to get started: whom I’d like to invite, why I wanted to host the party, as well as suggestions for things my guests could watch or read beforehand. Then, with a click of a button, I received a template for an invitation along with ideas for how to structure the dinner party conversation. It was all free.

I invited a number of friends and encouraged them to invite friends. Half immediately declined (“Ugh! What a gruesome topic!”) and the other half eagerly accepted (“How soon can we do this?”). A few weeks later, six women gathered around my dinner table. We were a mixed bag. Some were young and some old. Some were Christian, others Jewish and others secular. Some had been through the death of a loved one and others had not. We had an ER doctor, a retired nurse, a nursery school teacher, a blogger, a social services administrator and me, an adjunct professor and JourneyCare Volunteer.

We began by toasting someone we knew who had died, sharing with the other guests what we’d learned from that person’s life or admired about him or her. Then we moved on to the meat of the conversation: Is there such a thing as a good death? If there is, how would you describe it? It was a lively conversation weaving back and forth through each other’s stories.

We thought that a “good death” was one where the dying person felt a sense of peace and acceptance, gave and received love, expressed a sense of gratitude, and could still take pleasure in the tiny joys of life. We all agreed that seeing a “good death” made us less afraid to die when our own time comes.

“Can we ensure ourselves a good death?” I asked. One guest said that in her experience, people often died the way they lived—contented people became more contented, irritable people more irritable, and so if that’s true, then maybe, she said, a good death comes to those who have been truly good in life.

With that, our most thought-provoking evening came to an end. To say good-bye, we toasted one another and offered our best wishes that each of us would grow in love and kindness, peace and joy, as well as generosity and goodwill as we made our way through the rest of our lives and towards the end that must come to us all.

I encourage you to consider hosting a "Death Over Dinner" party, too. I guarantee, you’ll never have a more memorable evening!

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