What Really Happens During a 'Death Over Dinner' Event?

Updated

Death is a universal part of life. Despite this, many people don’t like talking about it. And that's exactly what Death Over Dinner is looking to solve.

Those who adopt a death positive mindset have an easier time looking at death. Through research, spirituality, or perhaps the nature of their work, they have accepted that one day, themselves and everyone they know will die.

Jump ahead to these sections:

The death positive mindset is a growing outlook. Though there are plenty of others who would prefer not to discuss death at all, the movement has led to the establishment of death salons and death cafes where people discuss this sensitive subject with others in a safe and welcoming environment.

But how are people introduced to these ideas? And how might we introduce others when we feel that a conversation about death is an important and pressing matter to ourselves and our loved ones? Death Over Dinner is one way.

What is Death Over Dinner? How can it help you and your loved ones? Keep reading to find out! 

What is ‘Death Over Dinner’?

Death Over Dinner is technically the name of a nonprofit organization that started in 2013. The organization’s founders had learned that, according to surveys, 75% of Americans say they would prefer to die at home but only 25% of Americans actually do. They realized many people don’t enjoy the freedom to plan for their deaths because so many people don’t feel comfortable talking about death. They also realized they had an opportunity to do something about it.

This realization inspired them to start Death Over Dinner. 

What ‘Death Over Dinner’ involves

Although Death Over Dinner’s founders created the organization to help people talk about death more easily, the finer details of the organization’s mission have their roots in a University of Washington course named Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death. 

Death Over Dinner’s team specifically helps people organize dinners that involve explicitly talking about death with friends and family. Those who’ve used their services often share stories of finally being able to tell their ailing family members how much they care for them, coming up with unique ideas for memorial services, and even having fun!

It actually makes sense that some people would find this type of dinner party to be just as enjoyable as any similar social occasion. Finally getting the chance to talk about an issue you’ve been avoiding can bring about feelings of massive relief. Sharing that experience with friends and loved ones can result in positive conversations that allow everyone involved to truly relax, even if they’re actually discussing what many consider to be a stressful topic.

How Did ‘Death Over Dinner’ Get Started?

Again, Death Over Dinner began when members of the organization of the same name took inspiration from a University of Washington course that Michael Hebb, one of the organization’s founders, was teaching. Their goal was to provide people with a formal, easy way to directly address what many consider to be an uncomfortable topic.

The course soon became a website through which Hebb and his colleagues had the opportunity to reach a wider audience and share their mission. As the organization began helping people plan their own Death Over Dinner events, it grew.

The platform now has an international reach, with Australian editions, Jewish editions, and Doctors and Nurses editions currently being developed. The team wants to tailor their approach to Death Over Dinner events to different cultures and professions.

Hebb also took inspiration from his education and professional training when deciding that the dinner table could be an ideal setting in which to talk about death in a positive and open manner. Before teaching, he studied architecture and sometimes participated in opening restaurants. These experiences naturally exposed him to settings in which people gathered around tables to discuss various topics.

These experiences also contributed to his ideas when he began developing the idea of Death Over Dinner later. He recognized that sitting around a table in a fairly intimate setting can, in the right conditions, get people to open up about various topics and discuss them in greater detail than they might otherwise have the opportunity to do. This inspired him to promote death positivity through the idea of death-oriented dinner table discussion.

Interest in Death Over Dinner events has grown tremendously since then. Hebb estimates that, since 2013, people and groups have organized greater than 100,000 Death Over Dinner events in more than 30 countries.

Hebb recommends that people planning Death Over Dinner events take the opportunity to honestly acknowledge their feelings about a loss, their own eventual death, or both. He also encourages hosts to prepare questions designed to facilitate discussions about this topic. Additionally, although not necessary, he and his colleagues suggest including readings.

For example, in preparation for one Death Over Dinner event, Hebb sent participants Oliver Sacks’ New York Times farewell column. Sacks, a well-known physician, wrote the column a few months before his own death. In it, he discusses his gratitude while also acknowledging his fears. Providing Death Over Dinner participants with this type of content can help set the tone for an event.

Why Host or Attend a ‘Death Over Dinner’?

There are many reasons to host or participate in a Death Over Dinner. The following are just some of the more noteworthy. The specific benefits you experience from a Death Over Dinner depend on your needs and feelings about death.

Making plans

This is one of the most practical reasons to host your own Death Over Dinner party. If you have certain preferences about how and where you want to die, you need to be able to talk about death. This is key to ensuring everyone involved in the decision-making process thoroughly understands those preferences. 

Maybe you suspect an ill or aging loved one doesn’t have long to live. Perhaps you want to make certain requests about your own future death. Either way, hosting a Death Over Dinner is a relaxing and positive way to start having these types of conversations.

Sharing feelings

Many people have watched a loved one slowly pass away and wished they could have told them their feelings before the end. Many people never find the courage to actually do so. They simply don’t want to talk about death (or they assume their loved one doesn’t want to talk about death). As a result, they never get the opportunity to express some very important feelings.

This can lead to a deep sense of regret later on. Even if your intentions were in the right place, you could still feel slightly ashamed or disappointed with yourself when a loved one passes before you get the chance to tell them how much you’ll miss them.

Hosting a Death Over Dinner can help you guard against this experience. When you let yourself start talking about death in a comfortable setting, you can move past the discomfort, and start having the conversations that matter most.

Handling fear

Fear of death is among the most universal human experiences. Whether you believe this fear is the product of evolution or a trait from a higher power to ensure we make this life count, you share this outlook with many people throughout the world who struggle to cope with the knowledge that they and their loved ones will die.

One of the best ways to overcome a fear is to discuss it with others. You can share coping strategies or simply find comfort in knowing friends and family understand (and may even share) your anxieties. 

That’s a wonderful way to manage your fear of, say, flying. However, fear of death is different because many people who are afraid of dying don’t like to talk about it. This prevents them from supporting one another in a crucial way.

This is yet another good reason to organize or attend a Death Over Dinner party. You’ll be giving yourself and others the chance to truly confront and overcome one of your most significant fears head-on.

How to Host a ‘Death Over Dinner’

There are two basic methods for hosting a Death Over Dinner party. We’ll describe both. However, just keep in mind that these are general guidelines. You should tailor your Death Over Dinner to your specific circumstances, goals, and preferences.

The official method

You can host a Death Over Dinner party by working directly through the organization’s platform. It guides you through the process in a simple, step-by-step manner. This involves:

  • Making decisions about who to invite to the dinner.
  • Reviewing a list of reasons you might be interested in hosting a Death Over Dinner, and choosing the one that best describes your feelings.
  • Choosing books about death or other articles or video content you would like your guests to familiarize themselves with to prepare for the dinner.
  • Reviewing your answers. Once you’re happy with your decisions, Death Over Dinner will ask for your email address so the organization can provide you with an invitation designed specifically for your guests and intentions. 

The unofficial route

It’s completely understandable if you’re not sure how to introduce the idea of a Death Over Dinner party to the people you want to invite. If you feel that way, using the organization’s platform removes some of the burdens by guiding you through the initial planning stages.

That said, the idea behind these types of parties is essentially simple. You’re going to meet with a few select people and intentionally talk about death. Usually, you have a specific reason, such as helping a loved one with end-of-life planning or helping friends cope with a recent loss.

That means you don’t necessarily need to use the official Death Over Dinner platform if you feel comfortable handling the process yourself. You can easily make a guest list, choose an intention for the dinner, and send out invitations.

Just make sure you consider all your decisions carefully if you choose to go this route. You want to select guests you believe will genuinely benefit from your Death Over Dinner. You need to set an intention for the party that will ensure it’s a productive experience for everyone involved.

It also helps to ask your guests to read, watch, or listen to relevant content ahead of time. Or, you could prepare questions or specific topics of discussion for the party. Your goal is simply to make sure you have specific death-related topics to start talking about as soon as the party starts. You don’t need to focus on those topics throughout the entire party, but having them prepared will help you avoid the initial awkwardness that you might otherwise experience when discussing this touchy subject.

Perhaps most importantly, be sensitive when inviting your guests, and be understanding if any of them don’t want to participate. Although it might be appropriate in some instances to ask someone who declined your invitation to reconsider if you think attending will benefit them in a clear and specific way, you also need to accept that someone who doesn’t want to attend an event focused on death may have a reason for feeling that way.

What Are Good Questions to Ask at a ‘Death Over Dinner’ Event?

There are several questions you can ask during a Death Over Dinner event that can help people begin talking about a subject that many wish not to discuss. The following are a few examples worth keeping in mind.

Are you afraid of death? If so, what do you specifically fear?

Fear of death is one of the most common human experiences. It’s also one that few openly talk about.

This can have harmful consequences. Death anxiety may significantly impact a person’s mental and emotional wellbeing. It can even prevent them from enjoying life to the fullest. People need opportunities to discuss this fear if they’re to learn healthier means of coping with it.

Asking this question during a Death Over Dinner event will provide these opportunities. It will also give people a chance to more thoroughly discuss their specific fears. For example, one person might specifically fear the process of dying, knowing that they may have to contend with significant anxiety and the breakdown of their physical abilities if they slowly die of an illness or old age. Another person might fear what does (or doesn’t) come after death.

Do you have any strategies for changing your attitude toward death that you’d like to share?

Death Over Dinner events offer many potential benefits to participants. One involves learning from others.

It’s possible some Death Over Dinner event guests have methods for developing a more death-positive attitude than they may have once had. Give them a chance to share their thoughts.

Imagine you’ve learned you only have 30 days to live. During this time, you’ll be able-bodied, but you will undeniably die after 30 days. How do you feel? How do you spend your time?

This is a variation on a type of question that Hebb has asked at Death Over Dinner events. Its purpose is to get people to begin thinking in very stark terms about their own mortality. It can also inspire people to engage with their values more. By thinking about what you might do with the limited time you have left if you knew you only had 30 days to live, you might get a clearer sense of what matters most to you in life.

What was your first real-life experience with death?

A person’s early experiences with death can play a critical role in their attitudes and thoughts regarding death throughout the rest of their life. Death Over Dinner events can give people a space to discuss these experiences and the feelings they generated in a positive context.

Other Ways You Can Engage With Death Positivity 

Participating in Death Over Dinner events isn’t the only way to engage with death positivity. Other options to consider include the ones below.

Death salons

Death salons are events the Order of the Good Death organizes. They model these events on 18th century salons, in which intellectuals would gather to discuss various topics. Naturally, the topics of discussion during a death salon include death, dying, mourning, and any other topic related to death in general.

Living funerals

A “living funeral” is a funeral in which the focus is on someone who’s still alive. For example, Michael Hebb’s living funeral involved him laying in a coffin while friends and loved ones spent three hours hosting what would otherwise be a traditional funeral. They told stories about Hebb, wailed in sorrow at times, and even made a few jokes to lighten the atmosphere.

A living funeral can have many benefits. Along with helping people engage more deeply with the idea of their own passing, it can give loved ones the chance to express thoughts and feelings they might otherwise reserve for a traditional funeral. This allows them to express their love and appreciation for someone important to them while they’re still alive.

Reading books

Reading books about death is one of the simplest but most effective ways to engage with death positivity. You can read books about the history of death beliefs in various cultures, read books about losing loved ones, or even read books whose authors may have written them while they knew they were dying.

Participating in online discussions

You may like the idea of organizing a Death Over Dinner event but also find it difficult to get people in your life to agree to participate in one. Luckily, there are many online platforms such as Facebook, Quora, and Reddit where people from across the globe discuss a wide range of topics. Death positivity is one such topic.

Death Over Dinner: Making Important Conversations Easier

Death is unavoidable. Thus, much as some of us might like to, we probably shouldn’t avoid talking about it. Instead, we should use methods such as Death Over Dinner parties to help us find easier ways to address this important topic.


Sources:
  1. Harris, Richard. “Discussing Death Over Dinner.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group, 16 April 2016, theatlantic.com
  2. “Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death.” Roundglass, 2021. deathoverdinner.org

Icons sourced from FlatIcon.