How would you like to die? How would you like to be remembered? And what’s the best death you’ve ever seen?
It’s difficult thinking about these questions, let alone verbalizing answers. There are consequences, though, for trying to avoid the inevitable. Some 70 percent of Americans say they would prefer to die at home, yet only 30 percent actually do. Dying in a hospital, perhaps with unplanned or unwanted treatment, can be hugely expensive for patients’ families and for taxpayers: The Wall Street Journal reports that in 2009, the 1.6 million Medicare patients who died that year accounted for 22.3% of total hospital expenditures.
A new project, Let’s Have Dinner and Talk about Death, aims to give people the opportunity to broach what might be perhaps the toughest subject of all over a table rather than a hospital bed rail. It’s built around the idea that mealtime discussions offer a convivial forum for participants to talk about, quite simply, how they would like to die. Hopefully, expressing wishes out loud will lead to having an end-of-life plan in place with family and healthcare providers.
The concept comes from chef Michael Hebb, a TEDMED 2013 speaker, and Scott Macklin, a Teaching Fellow and Associate Director at the University of Washington’s (UW) Digital Media program. Hebb says humans have an innate urge to communicate over a meal. “The table and the fire are where we first concentrated calories by cooking,” he says. “There is a safety and comfort among food and drink, and a sense that issues of gravity can be discussed.”
A web site devoted to the experience, www.deathoverdinner.org, which will be fully operational this summer, will share ideas for hosting dinners devoted to morbidity and will invite users to share their stories in its online community. It’s also the basis of a new UW course. The enterprise is a division of the non-profit Engage With Grace, and two TEDMED partners, Shirley Bergin and Jonathan Ellenthal, are advisors.
And what’s the ideal menu for such a dinner? First, Hebb says, serve something you know how to cook. “Unless you are a culinary wizard, I wouldn’t suggest molecular gastronomy or any new kitchen terrain,” he says. “Make something that makes you happy, both to prepare and to eat.”
For more about the project, visit www.deathoverdinner.org and follow #deathoverdinner.