Death. It’s not typically considered polite dinner conversation, but it was the topic of choice at seven dinners with TEDMED delegates and an assortment of grandparents, parents, close friends, co-workers, children and strangers.
The dinners are part of a new project, Let’s Have Dinner and Talk about Death, which encourages people to “discuss the beauty, mystery, fears, hopes, and challenges of end of life decision making” in a setting that is comfortable and comforting—over dinner.
Chef Michael Hebb, a TEDMED 2013 speaker and founder of the project, urges families to have these discussions now, rather than waiting for a critical, life-threatening situation when emotions are high and time is short.
A New Yorker article from 2010, one of the three pieces of pre-dinner “homework” for TEDMED dinner attendees, reported on a national Coping with Cancer study showing that terminally ill cancer patients who received intensive care had a substantially worse quality of life in their last week than those who received no such interventions.
Some studies have found that the missing ingredient that often stands between a patient and a quality end of life is simply talking about goals and ideas for what end of life should be like before the time comes.
Other recommended listening before the dinners included a poignant—sometimes funny, sometimes heart-wrenching—interview with comedian Tig Notaro, who broke all social mores and opened up a critical dialogue by sharing her experience losing her mother and receiving a fatal cancer diagnosis as part of a live comedy standup act.
- Start with a sense of gratitude. Think of someone who is no longer with us, and how they made a difference in your life.
- Share the most powerful end of life experience you have witnessed—whether from up close or afar.
- What do your final days look like? Who is with you? Where are you? (“Are you at home, are you in a hospital, are you on safari in Kenya aloft in a hot air balloon with vintage champagne on ice?”)
The dinners followed a moving set of talks at TEDMED all focused on opening up an honest dialogue about death. Charity Tillemann-Dick, an accomplished opera singer who happens to be on her third set of lungs, urged the crowd to find immortality, in a way, by giving new life at death — through organ donation.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Cost of Hope, Amanda Bennett, recounted her experience with her husband’s last weeks and months. She said she and her husband truly believed that despite his diagnosis of severe bowel disease, if they worked hard enough, conducted enough research and found the right treatments — that her husband would never have to die. But Bennett proposed that quest represents not denial, but a powerful form of hope. And just maybe that hope serves a critical purpose in the struggle to comprehend and survive, so to speak, death.
This cultural approach to resisting death may not be unique, but it’s also not universal. Anthropologist Kelli Swazey offered a glimpse into the culture of the Torajan tribesmen, who spend their entire lives preparing for their deaths. Their comfort with death is so complete that they continue to live with the dead bodies of their expired kin during a transitional period before they can raise the money for mandatory elaborate burial rituals.
Michael Hebb closed the evening by leading attendees in a toast to death, summoning a feeling of gratitude for those we have lost.