Death Over Dinner: A Conversation about Mortality with Michael Hebb

The Magazine: Death Over Dinner: A Conversation about Mortality with Michael Hebb

Michael Hebb has spent the past twenty years focusing on difficult conversations and the dinner table. He’s the founder of Death Over Dinner, a nonprofit experimenting with shared meals where participants are asked to grapple with their own mortality, and the author of “Let’s Talk about Death Over Dinner.”

Why do you think it’s so difficult to have taboo conversations?

I don’t think we were ever good at having taboo conversations. We have a lineage of what meaningful meals and conversations over the table look like. I don’t know of a culture that prioritized difficult, vulnerable conversations well, at scale. So maybe this is a great indicator of where our next stage of evolution is, as a species.

What inspired you to start Death Over Dinner?

I identified that we’ve really forgotten how to eat together in a meaningful way — we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about farming and cooking and chefs and farm-to-table, but not a lot of time thinking about why we want to be at the table, sharing food, sharing an experience, and what happens there. There’s a reason why, more and more, we eat our food in our cars, in our beds, on our couch, at our desks — because we haven’t spent the time designing, considering, attracting people to the magic of the actual dinner table.

99.9% of our attention has been on the food and the setting, but not the set. We’ve gotten the setting right, we just haven’t considered the set. So I’ve focused my attention on how to reinvigorate the dinner table as a place of deep human connection, meaningful conversation, and ultimately, healing.

Walk us through what a “Death Over Dinner” experience is like.

It begins with someone inquiring about hosting a dinner, or understanding what it might mean. The website gives you an opportunity to explore that, whether you want to host a dinner or not.

When you visit the site, it asks you a few questions: What is your intention? Have you lost someone, or is someone you love or you, yourself, terminal? We have a real difficulty creating space for people who have discovered they have a prognosis, that they’re not going to be here for very long. It’s about creating situations that allow them to break that news or process it. Or maybe you’re just a young family that wants to be prepared, and you read the statistic that we can live a third of the time longer if we’ve had these conversations together.

The website gives you your whole script, almost like a board game for the evening, including the invitation language (because it’s a weird invitation to send to people). It allows you to pick homework for your guests, so you’ve all read or watched something in common, and then you have the comprehensive script for the evening (we don’t provide the roast chicken, but everything else is taken care of).

The dinner starts with everyone acknowledging someone they love that is no longer with us and the meaning they had in their lives, and when everyone does that it changes the tenor of the table immediately. I’ve done it with five-hundred people in a room, ten people at a table, with all this bubbling energy, and when everyone does this exercise you can hear a pin drop. And everybody is completely engaged, in their bodies, connecting with people at their table. It works for a party of four and a group of five-hundred. And then you go through a series of questions, curated based on your intention. Those could be questions that start on the lighter or shallower end of the pool, and then go into the deeper end.

It might start with questions like, What do you want your last meal to be? More prosaic, socially acceptable questions… And then, a question like: You have just found out you have an hour to live, and you have one phone call to make. Who are you going to call and what do you want to say? Or, what do you want to happen to your body, and how do you want to be memorialized? How do you want to be remembered? And so, there’s a gamut of questions that most people have never encountered before. Even people who have worked in the end of life space tell me that they haven’t even considered some of these questions.

And then everyone completes the dinner with an appreciation, so that we can change the body chemistry for everyone to go back into the “not talking about death” world. And then hopefully people are inspired to identify the health proxy, and have completed their advanced care directives...perhaps they decide they want life insurance, or make sure they have a living will.

Our goal is around death literacy and comfort — the comfortability around this conversation. You will have this conversation again at some point, and it will most likely be with a doctor or a lawyer or an insurance company, and it’s better if you have it at a beautiful table, with your friends and family first.

What an amazing experience. What usually happens at the end of the evening?

Everyone completes the dinner with an appreciation so that we can change the chemistry for everyone to go back into the “not talking about death” world, and then hopefully inspire people to identify their health proxy, and have completed their advanced care directives. Perhaps they decide they want life insurance, or they make sure they have a living will.

Our goal is around death literacy and comfortthe comfortability around this conversation, because you will have this conversation again at some point, and it will most likely be with a doctor or a lawyer or an insurance company. It’s better if you have it at a beautiful table, with your friends and family first.

How has Death Over Dinner impacted the lives of others?

The response from people is overwhelmingI don’t know how to quite contain it. What has been most inspiring is that I’ve heard that family communication style structures has shifted, because of doing a “death dinner.” If we’re able to help give people the death they want in some small fashion, to have some influence or inspiration or improvement, that’s pretty extraordinary.

The fact that it’s at scale and there’s been 200,000 dinners, something like one million people have sat down and had this experience, and that we’re still just getting started, it feels like it’s doing the work much brighter and bigger than we could have ever imagined. That feels great.

Does death awareness change the way you’re raising your daughters?

My rule of thumb with kids, my own and others, is that only if they’re curious do you include them. And that really goes for everyonethis is not a forced conversation. With my daughters, what it’s taught me more than anything is that I want them to really know their fatherI want them to have a full experience of who I am, while I’m here. My father died when I was thirteen and he was seventy-two when I was born. I spent my life thinking about who he was, what he would say, what he would think, how would he feel about x,y or z. I think a lot of us wonder about our parents, especially if we haven’t witnessed them completely; a lot of parents don’t feel comfortable sharing the full spectrum of who they are with their children.

I think that’s very harmful thing to do, to not share ourselves completelynot to share our flaws, our triumphs, when we fuck up, when we are successful, when we’re heartbroken, when we’re sad. We want to protect them, and I think our kids should always feel safe. And part of feeling emotionally safe is knowing that sometimes it’s bad and sometimes it’s good. Psychologically it’s called an “osculating narrative,” and people who have an engrained osculating narrative about life, live longer and are more resilient.

Essentially, that’s what I want my kids to be able to experience.

What have you learned from your twenty years of experience hosting dinners and meaningful conversations?

What I’ve learned, via dinners with some of our most vaunted leaders in the world, as well as people who are living on the streets, people who are deep in the throws of addiction, people who are on their deathbed (literally), is that the most difficult conversations — the most taboo conversations, the things that we avoid, the things that we repress — have the ability to transform us and heal us the most.

So, how do we have those conversations, if they have the most potential for healing, and we’re avoiding them? It’s no surprise we live in a sick culture, a toxic culture.

Essentially how do we take the work that we do in our therapists’ office and ground it in our communities, our families, our business lives?

We tend to isolate our healing into these verified or controlled settings. What is the healing potential of conversation and how to have it, distribute it, scale it, and really maximize its potential? That led me to my work around death, because it is one of the greatest taboos, the thing we all share. And it’s for sure the thing that the majority of us repress or fear. There’s an incredible lineage of studies that show that when we face our mortality, we have conversations, make decisions, plans and talk to our families about what we want. There’s an eighty-year Harvard study that proves that human connection is a key factor in longevity. So if we’re interested in living a long, meaningful, life, it’s very clear that human connection is the pathway. Vulnerable, difficult conversations, especially about death, have the power to connect us most quickly and deeply to the people in our lives.

How has our relationship with death changed overtime?

There are definitely better rituals around death in places like India, Mexico and West Africa, Ireland — however, how we die has changed significantly. Nine out of ten of us will die of an “announced” death, meaning we will know what is going to take us, whether that’s cancer or Alzheimer’s or heart disease, we get to see the specter or the Grim Reaper in our sight, and that’s psychologically a completely different state than we’ve ever had in the history of human experience. So while we might be good at the “He or she is dead, let’s celebrate them,” I don’t know if we’ve ever been good at, “He or she is dying at some point in the next few years.” And so it’s not surprising that we struggle globally. We’ve medicalized this process and this conversation to the point of all trying to “beat” something, and “win” at it, as opposed to have a reckoning. If you don’t know what you’re living for, how are you going to fight for it? That’s what death does, when you look at it, when you spend time with it, when you look death in the mirror, it gives you the ability to sharpen your priorities, what it is you want to do with the rest of your days, and who you want to be.

That’s the great medicine of itthat it always has been. There’s a reason why death reflection and meditation is in all of our philosophical, spiritual and wisdom traditions. It is the route to knowing who we are.

When I host death dinners, I’ll tell people: you hear the word “vulnerable” or “to be in community,” but what does that really mean? How do I “be” in community? In practice, vulnerability looks like noticing you want to share something, and then editing yourself, saying, they’re going to judge me if I say that, or, the people I’m with will think it’s too much or I’m too much, or, I’m going to cry if I say that, or, “I’m going to get angry if I say that,” so noticing that there’s something that pops into your head that you want to share, but then you decide to take a step back from vulnerability, vulnerability is actually taking the step over that line, and saying the thing despite your editing consciousness.

It’s very rare that people are given a very clear practice to say, “Here’s how to be vulnerable.” And the same thing is true for gratitude.

If you want to be grateful for life and all of life, think about the fact that it’s going to end.

Editor's note: interview conducted on May 9, 2019 and edited for length and clarity.

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