200,000 Dinners Later: What The Founder of Death Over Dinner Wants You to Know (And What’s Next)

18 Sep 2019 - Tracey Wallace

Welcome

It began in 2013 –– what some credit to be the beginning of the death wellness movement later declared a global wellness movement (“Dying Well”) by the Global Wellness Institute in 2019.

But for Michael Hebb, launching Death Over Dinner wasn’t a pivotal point in a movement. It was an extension of a conversation with friends and colleagues around things that matter. Like, really, really matter.

And it turns out that death was a central theme –– the fears most harbor about it, both for ourselves and those we love. Then, the stat came –– the stat that changed everything.

80% of people want to die at home yet only 20% of people do.

It was a lightbulb moment for Michael, and the conception of what would become Death Over Dinner, and then Living Funeral, and then so, so much more.

Since then, Michael along with collaborators including Chase Jarvis, Arianna Huffington, Dr. Oz, The US Surgeon General, and Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist have hosted robust conversations over dinner, as well as have set up an online tool to help others have this important conversation.

From New York to Seattle, and everywhere in between, more than 200,000 people have used DeathOverDinner.org to talk about –– often for the first time:

It is this willingness to have this critical conversation, to break bread together and talk about what really matters, that have spawned larger programs and collaborations. In 2017, Death Over Dinner joined social wellness venture RoundGlass to expand their mission and reach.

And it all tracks back to Michael, to that stat about where we want to die and about where we actually do, and how a few people came together to try to figure out a solution, one dinner at a time.

To get a better understanding of how (and why) this started, what is happening now, and where it is going now that the death wellness movement is in full swing, we sat down with Michael and said, “Let’s talk about death.”

Here’s the full interview.

THE STORY OF THE VERY FIRST OF THESE EVENTS, WITH YOU BEING CARRIED IN A COFFIN, DRESSED IN ALL WHITE, SOUNDS LIKE A SCENE FROM A MOVIE. HOW DID IT EVOLVE FROM THAT INTO WHAT IT IS TODAY?

Well, the event you mention was completely different from death over dinner, and more about my friends viewing me as the “death guy” and deciding to celebrate my 40th birthday with a Living Wake. And it happened a few years after we launched Death Over Dinner.

Death Over Dinner began as a graduate course I taught at the University of Washington in the Communications Department. Over a four-year time period, with a variety of different students and collaborators including Chase Jarvis, Arianna Huffington, Tom Kundig, and Kate Bailey, we explored how we could scale meaningful dinner table conversations about critical issues we face as humans.

In the second year, we landed on end of life and death as our primary topic, inspired by the tremendous gap between what people want at the end of their lives and what they get. The life changing statistic that 80% of people want to die at home yet only 20% of people do was the primary inspiration.

It became clear that a grassroots movement was needed, that death literacy was at an all-time low, and that open conversation could potentially revolutionize the health care system.

Since then, Death Over Dinner has become a global phenomenon, with people holding death dinners every day all over the world.

The birthday / coffin / dressed in white / movie scene experience you mention gave rise to a companion website and project called The Living Wake – www.livewake.com. There is a growing desire for people with terminal illness, or those that are simply getting older, to gather loved ones and celebrate their lives, or the lives of their family members, while they are still alive.

The Living Wake is a response to that yearning, and we developed some beautiful resources to help people think through, plan and host a living wake.

DO YOU HAVE A PULSE ON HOW MANY DEATH OVER DINNER EVENTS HAVE BEEN HELD SINCE 2013?

Our conservative estimate is that 200,000 dinners have taken place, which means that roughly 1 million people have sat down and had the experience. The events are independently organized and people re-use our resources multiple times for multiple dinners, so it will always be difficult to know the precise number.

We now have full platforms built for Australia, India and Brazil with regional partners, and two years ago we launched the Jewish Edition of Death Over Dinner in partnership with about 30 rabbis.

However, I am most excited about our Healthcare Edition, which has been built in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, and even though it is still just in beta, it is already being used by dozens of the leading health care systems in the US.

There is nothing more thrilling to me than to sit down with doctors and nurses and see precisely how meaningful these conversations are to those who are facing death every-day.

THE DEATH OVER DINNER SITE DOES AN AMAZING JOB AT WALKING YOU THROUGH HOW TO HOST YOUR OWN DINNER. ONE OF THE THINGS IT ASKS IS FOR YOU TO CHOOSE SOMETHING TO READ, TO WATCH AND TO LISTEN TO TO SEND TO YOUR GUESTS PRIOR TO DINNER. DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVORITE PIECES YOU’D USE IF YOU WERE HOSTING A DINNER? ONE FOR READING, ONE FOR WATCHING, ONE FOR LISTENING?

Of course!

Listen: My favorite podcast content right now on the topic is the TED interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, she shares such immense wisdom.

Read: This piece of writing from Oliver Sacks as he accepts his imminent death always leaves me inspired. From the piece:

“I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. “

Watch: This video has 10 million views for a reason, it captures a professor reuniting with a chimpanzee after many years:

YOU WERE IN THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS BEFORE LAUNCHING DEATH OVER DINNER, AND YOU’VE SPOKEN ABOUT “THE TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF THE TABLE” IN OTHER INTERVIEWS. CAN YOU PROVIDE A BIT OF CONTEXT THERE? WHAT ABOUT A DINNER TABLE SETTING MAKES IT A GOOD PLACE TO HAVE THIS CONVERSATION?

The dinner table is the most natural place for human connection and difficult conversations. The comfort of food and drink goes a long way toward taking the edge off of this topic. There are so many additional reasons why the table is a perfect setting, but I will leave that for a future interview!

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO HAVE SUGGESTED RESOURCES, CONVERSATION PROMPTS AND POST DINNER ACTIVITIES LAID OUT PRIOR TO THE DINNER FOR YOU AND GUESTS? WHAT DOES THIS HELP FACILITATE?

End of life conversations are inherently difficult to initiate and can be stressful to navigate. Very few of us have experience with them, and no one is an expert on death. That is why we made the process crystal clear, and formulated Death Over Dinner almost like a board game.

When you are playing a board game, you know the rules, and so you can relax and just play. We wanted everyone to have the same level of comfort with this conversation.

Death Over Dinner is designed to be held without facilitators. People intuitively know how to talk about what is most important to them, we all just need a little guidance to get started.

IT’S IMPORTANT FOR FOLKS TO COME TO THESE DINNERS OPEN TO BE VULNERABLE. HOW DO YOU SET THE STAGE FOR THAT — ENCOURAGING PEOPLE TO TAKE OFF THAT ARMOR WE ALL WEAR SO REGULARLY?

In the board game that is Death Over Dinner, vulnerability is unquestionably the winning move. The beautiful thing is that people don’t need to think about whether they are good at being vulnerable or whether they even want to, the questions that we provide do all of this work for you.

We do encourage people to not edit their responses and to try to say things they are afraid to say. Doing this will bring you closer to knowing your own priorities, and it will bring you closer to the people in your life.

HOW HAVE YOU SEEN THE DEATH AND END OF LIFE CONVERSATION CHANGE SINCE 2013?

It has changed immensely. End of life is now front page news.

The most important shift I have recognized is about literacy. Death literacy in the US has increased, and now I see people making empowered decisions more often.

Creativity has entered the conversation. People now feel that they can use their imagination when it comes to planning their last chapter and planning memorials.

We saw the same revolution in weddings and births. These used to be things that happened to us. Now in all three of these tremendous life events, we have ownership over the experience.

WHY IS THIS CONVERSATION SO IMPORTANT? WHAT’S AT STAKE HERE?

In short, our lives are at stake, and so is our well-being.

I have heard the figure recently that 25% of us are actively grieving. That begs the question, how are we grieving? If we don’t know our loved ones wishes, we will grieve longer and more intensely.

The impact of grief on our well-being is hard to calculate. It is also true that end of life expense is the number one cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States – add these items up and we are facing immense suffering financially and emotionally.

But, this is the negative side of the coin. When we face our mortality, there are many beautiful things that result.

There is no better medicine than end of life awareness to give you clarity about what is truly important to you, your values, your priorities, how you want to live. Life becomes more clear and sacred when we thoughtfully and intentionally face our impermanence.

We also know from studies done by Dr. Jordana Jacobs and other leading psychologists that talking about death actually increases our capacity to love. Other studies have shown that we become funnier and laugh more easily after being primed for death, and I have seen personally that it is the quickest way to deepen the connection to your family and friends.

The 80 year Harvard Study of Adult Development has shown clearly that the most important indicator of a long and meaningful life is human connection. The more deeply we are connected to our friends and family – the longer we live.

THE DEATH OVER DINNER SITE IS VERY CLEAR IN THAT THIS DOESN’T HAVE TO BE MORBID. THIS IS ABOUT LIFE, FROM BEGINNING TO END. CAN YOU EXPLAIN THAT PHILOSOPHY, AND WHY IT FELT SO REVOLUTIONARY IN 2013? DO YOU THINK IT STILL FEELS REVOLUTIONARY NOW?

I think John Lennon said it best.

“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.”

This has been the philosophy since the beginning, to move toward life and to move toward death as a way to increase vitality. I think it is sometimes referred to as run toward the roar.

WHAT’S BEEN THE BIGGEST LESSON YOU’VE LEARNED IN ALL THIS?

If we give ourselves the generous gift of stepping way back, and begin to consider our mortality before we are in crisis, we have the opportunity to access an immense amount of vitality, joy, love, laughter and human connection.

WHAT GETS YOU OUT OF BED EVERY MORNING –– WHY KEEP DOING THIS? WHY THIS INDUSTRY? WHY THIS TOPIC?

I’m in love with life and have a deep trust in the universe. I think that is what gets me out of bed, I’m enchanted by life. It feels like this work chose me, and I am just doing my best to be a conduit for it.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU — WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?

I have had many exciting chapters of my life, but the launch of the Healthcare Edition of Death Over Dinner in many ways feels like the most substantial and most thrilling moment yet.

When we created Death Over Dinner, the moonshot was that we could find a way into the center of the American medical establishment and inspire clinicians to talk about death in an open hearted and vulnerable way. It isn’t easy for outsiders to enter into the halls of medicine, even with a guest pass, and it has been so life-affirming to see the immense adoption.

Knowing that oncologists, nurses, survivors and cancer patients are breaking bread every month at Memorial Sloan Kettering takes my breath away when I get present and let it sink in. To think that we are really just at the beginning seven years after we launched, just starting to crack open the potential of this conversation, that is awe inspiring.

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