At normal dinner parties, people sit around a table with friends, laughing and discussing the latest office romance. The meal is often followed by a hilarious game of Apples to Apples or Catch Phrase. But at one particular kind of dinner party, the conversation is dominated by the topics of cremation and burial. Death dinners are designed to create a safe environment for families and loved ones to discuss an otherwise taboo topic, and tackle those hard-to-ask questions.
A program called Let’s Have Dinner and Talk about Death, created by Michael Hebb and fellow faculty members at the University of Washington, is promoting such dinners. The difficult issues surrounding death are often left unresolved until the very end, forcing people to make decisions at an emotional time. Questions abound: Cremation or burial? Would I want to be put on life support? At what point do I want the plug pulled? Who will take care of my children when I'm gone? Leaving these questions to the last minute can cause family members to bicker, creating unnecessary drama at a time when people are already upset. Hashing out these tough issues beforehand is far more practical.
The website DeathOverDinner.org has a short questionnaire that helps users prepare an event. The first question asks about the demographics of the guests: are they family members, significant others, young, old, lovers, friends? The website recommends having a range of ages present, to spur conversation. The second question asks why one wants to broach the topic of death (e.g., "I have recently lost someone close to me," or, "I think being prepared for the decline in health and end in life is super important"). The third question allows the user to select from a list of thought-provoking background material to read, watch, and listen. Finally, the user is emailed a party packet, based on their responses. The packet provides people with an invitation to send their friends and family, links for guests to peruse before the dinner, and suggested conversation prompts.
While discussing the topic of death might be difficult and painful, these dinners allow people to address a very important topic in a casual way. I created a sample death dinner to see how it would work, which you can view here. I want my family to know that if I am incapacitated, brain-dead, or unable to really function, I would rather die than pain my family members. I have seen far too many older family members become senile, as Alzheimer’s runs in my adoptive family. I would like to die with dignity, rather than on life support. Again, those are just my preferences, but I want my family and friends to be aware of them.
While being invited to talk about cremation over crème brûlée seems odd, death dinners are a healthy way to talk about the inevitable, giving people peace of mind now, and preparing them for the future.