When you invite people over for a dinner party, you likely think of some delightful conversation topics to bring up to keep your guests engaged. My guest today argues that one of those topics should be death.
His name is Michael Hebb and he’s the founder of Death Over Dinner, an organization that encourages folks to have dinner parties to talk about death — from the philosophical aspects to practical matters like wills and funeral planning.
Today on the show we discuss why you should invite friends and family to your house to talk death over a plate of lasagna. We begin our conversation discussing the downsides of not talking about death and how ill-prepared Americans are for death both emotionally and financially. Michael then shares the best ways to invite people to a death over dinner party. We then dig into questions you can use to get people talking about death in terms of both the practical and the philosophical.
True story: after I recorded this episode, I had dinner with some friends and we discussed death and estate planning over pizza. It was a big success.
- How Michael’s interest in talking about death started with architecture
- Our death-phobic culture, and why people don’t talk about it
- The practical consequences of not talking about death
- Why the dying experience in American healthcare is broken
- The vast importance of having a plan for dying
- Why having a plan is a loving service for the people who care about us
- How to invite people over for dinner in order to talk about death
- The logistics of your dinner party, and why to keep things simple
- How talking about death actually makes you a better person
- How to broach especially difficult topics (like losing a child)
- Should kids be part of these dinners?
- How should a death over dinner party end?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- What Is a Dinner Party?
- Brunch Is Hell
- What Building Your Own Coffin Teaches You About Life, Death, and Meaning
- Memento Mori: Meditate on Death and Become a Better Man
- The Dying Experience — Myths and Answers
- How to Protect Your Legacy: A 3-Step Guide to Estate Planning
- A Man’s Primer on Advance Directives
- What Man Understands That He’s Dying Daily?
- GYST: Get Your Sh*t Together (End of Life Planning in One Place)
- Cards Against Humanity
- What Every Man Should Know About Losing a Loved One
- What It’s Like to Become a Widower
- The Conversation Project
Connect With Michael
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Today is actually the 500th episode of the AOM Podcast which is a cool milestone. Thanks everyone who’s been with us from the beginning, for a long time now, or if you just started listening. Thank you for joining us. And if you just started, you’ve got 500 episodes you could check out in our podcast archives, and you can check that out at artofmanliness.com/podcast. Thanks a lot. It’s been a fun ride and here’s to 500 more.
And let’s get down to today’s show. When you invite people over for a dinner party, you likely think of some delightful conversation topic to bring up to keep your guests engaged. My guest today argues that one of those topics should be death. His name is Michael Hebb, and he’s the founder of Death Over Dinner, and organization that encourages folks to have dinner parties to talk about death from the philosophical aspects to practical matters like wills and funeral planning. Today on the show, we discuss why you should invite friends and family to your house to talk death over a plate of lasagna. We begin our conversation discussing the downsides of not talking about death and how ill prepared Americans are for death both emotionally and financially, also practically.
Michael then shares the best ways to invite people to a death over dinner party, and then we dig into questions you can use to get people talking about death in terms of both the practical and the philosophical. And true story, after I recorded this episode, I had dinner with some friends and we discussed death an estate planning over some pizza pie. It was a big success.
After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/deathoverdinner. Michael joins me now via clearcast.io.
All right, Michael Hebb, welcome to the show.
Michael Hebb: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you wrote a book and you’re the founder of a thing called Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner. So, how did you come up with this idea to host dinner parties where the topic of conversation is death.
Michael Hebb: It’s kind of a long story, so I’m glad we’ve got a little bit of time. It’s started actually with my interest in architecture, which may seem like a bit of a departure to how we get to conversation about death over the dinner table. But I went to architecture school, was just about to graduate and then ended up starting an architecture firm, as you sometimes do, right? Instead of going the standard process of finishing your degree, putting all of your time in getting your stamp and becoming an official architect, I decided to drop out of school and with another designer start a project called The City Repair Project and an architecture firm called Communitecture. And long story short, what we started doing was look at the city, it was Portland, Oregon where we were living, and we decided that we wanted to repair the city in the way that we saw fit, not necessarily in the way that city management and the bureaucracy thought it should be done.
And so, we started doing things like building buildings without permits, but also creating large community interventions that in many ways broke the law. And they had one kind of renowned intervention was to turn a residential intersection in the Sellwood neighborhood in Portland into a piazza, into a public square or a traditional gathering place. And so, we convinced all of the neighbors that lived in that neighborhood to come together in a 500-foot symbol of life in the middle of the asphalt on an intersection in a residential neighborhood with the idea that we would essentially lay down this design, this scheme, and bring everyone together so that we could create the type of space that we felt like we needed in order to connect with each other.
I think our modern cities do a very good job of disconnecting us, or the people that we live around, the people that we work with, where we shop, where we eat, all of these things be well separated in modern life. And so, we wanted to address that and start to create really powerful gathering spaces for people. The city got really pissed off, as you might be able to imagine, and they didn’t know who to blame necessarily because there had been about 100 neighbors that came together and had created this action, this massive artwork almost like a Banksy piece or something on the city street. Ultimately the mayor got really excited about the project and was kind of admonished the bureaucrats and said this is doing exactly what we want, what I’ve asked you to do. It’s slowing down traffic, it’s bringing community together. The cost of it was several buckets of paint. Yes, they broke the law, but they’re going to probably cost the city less because they’ll be relying on each other and communicating and reducing the cost of services.
And so, here I was like 21, and this was one of our first projects. We were also getting paid gigs to design houses and public squares. But the intersection repair went from being just a single installation to now there’s over 15,000, all over the world because a kind of urban design city planning archetype. And it was really just, it was me and my partner Mark with this crazy idea.
And so, how that relates to having dinners and talking about death is from that early, I guess from my early career as a designer, I saw very clearly that people are deeply yearning for meaning in their lives. That we live in a culture that doesn’t provide a lot of opportunity to gather in meaningful ways, and that there’s a deep desire and a deficit, almost like a bankruptcy around meaning, and that people will do extraordinary things in order to connect.
So, I took that early experience and continued thinking like a designer and realized that the dinner table is the ultimate gathering place. It always has been. And it’s actually where we became human. And we’ve forgotten how to eat together. We’ve forgotten how to use these dinner tables that sit in most of our houses.
And so, I combined this idea with crossing a boundary, breaking a law. Breaking a taboo like talking about death, and realizing that we have a great need for meaningful gathering at the dinner table. After 20 years of using the dinner table and understanding it, I met a bunch of really kind of crazy, sometimes messed up, sometimes really amazing ways, I learned enough to ask people to come to the table and talk about what was arguably the most difficult thing to discuss.
Brett McKay: Right. And it’s also one of the most important things to discuss because it’s a fact, like I think you said in the book, we’re all children of death. Right? It’s like we’ll all die one day, but we don’t talk about it. And you begin the book talking about there are some actual practical consequences, not just existential consequences. We’ll talk about that, but that’s an important part. But there’s also just brass tax consequences of not talking about death. What are some of those consequences?
Michael Hebb: Yeah. Well the specific inspiration for this movement, Death Over Dinner and then the book Let’s Talk About Death was a response to one of those very practical issues that we face. In the seven years ago when I started the project and it was one of those, it wasn’t a eureka moment, but it was one of those moments where you have a conversation with someone and you know that your life will be forever changed in that moment forward. And you’re lucky if you have one of those experiences, you’re incredibly lucky if you have many. I’ve had many of those experiences where I’m literally watching my life change as I’m having the experience knowing there’s an impact all of my future days.
And so, I’m on this train between Seattle and Portland, and I sit down in the dining car. And what I usually do in a dining car is, on the train or in any of these different transits, transportation modes that we use, is I isolate myself. Right? I find the chair where I can sit by myself, and I grab a seat, put on headphones possibly. But for whatever reason that day, I decided, I think maybe it was the crowded dining car and there was only one seat available with two other people at the table, and they both ended up being these doctors. And they’d both left the kind of conventional medicine practice that they had to go on, one of them was on a walkabout and just gotten back from Haiti. And the other one didn’t know what they were going to do, but they weren’t going to do medicine.
And so we started talking and I was like, “So you had left the medical world. Why have two random doctors decided to leave our medical system?” And of course they’re like, “Well, it’s broken.” So like you, I like to ask questions, and I said, “What is the most broken ting in our medical system?” And their answer was the same, even though they didn’t know each other. They both literally at the same time say, “How we die.” And for me that was a striking response, because seven years ago, there wasn’t front page news about end of life care, advanced care, palliative care, hospice. These things weren’t even talked about in the D, E or F sections of our newspapers very often. There’s been a total see change. And so I inquired further and the statistic that came out of that conversation that stopped me cold was that 75, and now I think it’s actually in some cases 80% dependent upon how you figure the statistics, but essentially 75% of us want to die at home in the United States, and only 25% of us do.
And so, if you do the quick math on that, that’s half of America not getting what it wants at the end. Not having access to or not deciding to, or for some reason not getting their wishes granted at the end of their life. And we live in a country that prides itself on rugged individualism and the freedom of choice and a list of freedoms. And the fact hat we’re not getting what we want for the one thing that we all have in common for me was incredibly striking. And I immediately saw a conversation as I delved a little bit deeper with these doctors to understand that because we’re not talking about death, because we’re not talking about our wishes, they’re not getting fulfilled.
And at that point I asked them, I said, “Well, what if I get the whole country to talk about death?” My brother likes to tell me it’s always an opera with me, so it’s not for like, “Well, let’s start small.” It’s like how do we take on this issue at a global scale? At first national and then global. And so I said, “I’m going to start this project let’s have dinner and talk about death,” and they’re like, “Great. Done. We support you.” And I haven’t seen those two doctors since. But the reality was we hit a nerve with this project. And even though when we first started, people thought that we were insane combining these two things. In the last five years since it launched, by conservative count there’s over a million people that have sat down and had this two to three hour experience. And we’ve done that for literally no funding other than a small Indiegogo.
Brett McKay: So, I mean you said okay 75% of Americans want to die at home, but only 25% do. So, it sounds like you have to have a plan and a very proactive plan. So if you don’t have a plan, what’s the default in the medical field? Like why do these guys think the way we die is broken? Is there a default that goes on there that causes people to end up dying in the hospital where they don’t want to be?
Michael Hebb: Yeah, so it takes a great deal of strength and tenacity to stand up to a doctor or in an ICU situation, or even sometimes to get somebody into hospice care. And there is a default which is keep somebody alive at all costs, treat every malady as it arises even if it’s not going to prolong life or prolong a quality of life. So, that’s where our medical system is set at default. And it’s not, some people say it’s because there is incredible greed in the system, and certainly there’s probably some of that. There’s also the Hippocratic oath and there’s also just the way that our medical system is set us is to focus on beating, curing, getting people back to some level of stasis or some level of well-being.
And so, if you decide that you want to take a loved one, or if you are I that situation and you want to actually stop fighting or die not in a hospital room surrounded by an array of machines and strangers, it is difficult to stand up and say, “This is what I want.” Especially when people aren’t willing to talk about the fact that the end is near. There’s not a conversation about reckoning, like it’s coming, but the likelihood of me getting out of here alive is low. How do I want my final days to be? How do I want my final moments to be?
You have individuals, family members, doctors, nurses, administrators all with a very low level of comfort and a low level of literacy around this conversation. And so, the conversations don’t happen hardly at all, and when they do happen, when people actually talk about, so as far as the practical quality of this conversation. It’s a little bit of a perfect storm, as you said, there’s existential, there’s spiritual reasons, there’s peace of mind reasons, there’s a lot of different elements to why we’d want to have this conversation, why we’d want to face our mortality.
But the very practical ones come down to the fact that you want to let your family know what you want at the end, how you want to be treated where you want to be, what is the feeling that you want? Like what kind of music do you want playing? Do you want to have yourself strapped to a bunch of machines? Do you want to fight at all costs? If you don’t tell them that, they don’t know how to advocate for you to make sure it happens. And if you don’t tell them what you want to have happen to your body or your things or your possessions, a couple different things happen.
So one, if we don’t have wills, and obviously we never know when we’re going to die. I have plenty of friends that have lost loved ones and spouses in the middle of their life and they weren’t prepared. And my friend Shanelle Reynolds started this incredible project, Get Your Shit Together because she lost her husband to a motorcycle accident and she didn’t know where the life insurance papers were or the bank account information was, and she literally lost a whole year of her life just in logistics. So, knowing what happens to our stuff, having our family know that, you’re doing them a great service. The amount of litigation that happens around family law and trust law and when people die and wills is just, it’s criminal. And it’s not necessary. It’s avoidable.
The other thing that I think is arguably more important than avoiding the litigious nature of when we’re dying is that if we don’t know what our loved ones want or we haven’t told our loved ones what we want, people don’t know how to honor us. If they don’t know exactly that we want to be cremated and what we want to have happen to our remains unless we have a specific idea about that, it’s not going to happen. But it also doesn’t allow that person who’s grieving us to have a clear grieving process. Because when our wishes are spoken and honored, it’s been proven in studies, the grieving process is actually shorter. So, and we can do practical layers like if you make decisions early about your wishes and advanced care and have a living will, and some people go and negotiate a funeral plot and a coffin and all of these things, there’s money to be saved there and there’s, it’s also the number one cause of bankruptcy, end of list costs in the united States.
So again, we have this perfect storm of the practical and the existential.
Brett McKay: Yeah, the statistic about the number one cause of bankruptcy being end of life costs, I worked at the Trustee’s Office and that’s, we saw a lot of that. It was really sad. Right? Because it’s people, their loved one didn’t have a plan, so they just tried to extend life as long as they could. When they finally died, they didn’t have a plan of what to do so they end up spending a lot more probably than maybe the person wanted on a funeral. Because they don’t know. It was just yeah, it was really tough to see that.
Michael Hebb: And we don’t want to make all those decisions when we’re grieving or we’re in crisis. Right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Michael Hebb: I mean that’s, the thing that we really want to be able to be as present as possible for our loved ones when they’re at the end or when they’re in the ICU. And if we’re having to think about these logistical details, we don’t make good decisions when we’re flooded, when we’re in fight or flight. That’s our reptilian brain. It’s not coming from our heart. And so, the decisions, they’re not very wise and they definitely don’t always resonate with what we ultimately want, or the person that we’re trying to make decisions for would want.
Brett McKay: Okay. So, those are some big practical consequences of not talking about death. I think we’ll get into the existential stuff here in a bit. So, let’s talk about, okay say someone’s listening to this like, that sounds kind of interesting to have Death Over Dinner. Like how do you invite someone? Do you juts be like, “Hey, we’re going to have chicken a la king and we’re going to talk about death. You want to come?” How does that work?
Michael Hebb: Well, one of the reasons why we created Death Over Dinner is so that you would have a blameable third party. Right? We’d decided that if you had an incredible toolkit, almost like a board game, that made it very clear how you would post and run and execute or be at, make happen and experience like this. You don’t want to leave a lot to guesswork, right? Because many people are already just naturally stressed out or triggered or uncomfortable with this conversation. Which really is not, I mean there’s some of it that’s just the nature of the conversation, and so much of it is cultural. We haven’t primed people for or created opportunities or permission for people to have these conversations. So, it’s awkward and uncomfortable for a lot of people.
So, the idea with Death Over Dinner was to make it as simple as possible, to make it as simple as the simplest board game. It’s almost like the opposite of Cards Against Humanity. Right? And like you do and say extraordinary things, and when you play Cards Against Humanity that you wouldn’t do or say in other situations. Right? We can be completely inappropriate. And so, with Death Over Dinner, it was like let’s create that level of clarity for people so they can be like, “Don’t blame me. Don’t look at me. I hosted you to this. I invited you, but it’s a real thing. Like there’s been a million people that have done it, in the New York Times and USA Today and all of these people have written about it, and it’s a movement.”
So, it was very clear in my thinking that we needed to have the media behind it. And this needed to be a project that was legible in the mainstream, so that when someone did invite their loved ones who were like, “What in the hell are you talking about?” They had some ammo. I could be like, “Well, look over here like Tim Ferris has death dinners. Arianna Huffington has death dinners.” Whoever you, you cam pick somebody that your family member idolizes and I could help you find out if they’ve had a Death Dinner.
But nonetheless, that is just one element of a theme out in the mainstream having it be helpful. How you actually invite somebody is, say that you found that this movement was really, seemed really interesting or seems really powerful and that the people that you’re inviting are the people that you really want to have this conversation with because they’re people that you care about most. Sometimes it’s better to start with friends, and sometimes you care about your friends more than you do your family. Sometimes your friends are going to be more likely to be the people making decisions for you, or closer to you at the end than your family.
But the thing about inviting people is one, you never surprise people. It’s never, “Come over for chili or pizza and surprise, we’re going to have this Death Dinner. It’s okay, it’s a national movement.” But that doesn’t work. So, it gives people the opportunity to select into an experience like this. A dinner is not necessarily the best place for all people to have this conversation. And so, I mean the book that I wrote is much more about having the conversation anywhere and having access to the prompts and the conversation starters and the questions that you can ask people and answer yourself anywhere, whether you’re doing it via email, Skype, walking in the woods, drinking beers with a group of people, et cetera.
So, I would say invite people thoughtfully, and without an expected outcome.
Brett McKay: Got you. And then be up front. Like you said, don’t spring it on them like people do with MLMs, like, “Hey, let’s go have lunch. Do you want to join my MLM? Hey, let’s have dinner, we’re going to talk about death when you’re here.”
Michael Hebb: Don’t do that.
Brett McKay: Yeah, don’t do that. It’s a good-
Michael Hebb: You wouldn’t want somebody to do that to you.
Brett McKay: Right. Exactly. All right, so you invite the person and say they say yes. And some people are going to say no, because there’s like, “I’m not ready for that,” or just, “I’m not comfortable with that.” That’s okay, you don’t have to make it weird.
Michael Hebb: No.
Brett McKay: You get the people there who want to be there. Food’s on the table. How do you kick off the conversation about death while you’re munching on roasted lamb or whatever?
Michael Hebb: Right. Well, a note of food, because people are like, “What do I cook for a death dinner. Do I do themed?” And it’s like well, what you cook should be something that doesn’t stress you out. And this goes for any dinner party you’re hosting, or any kind of actual gathering you’re hosting. If you’re the host and you’re stressed out, your guests are on some level also on alert. They’re, we’re social creatures. We look to the people that are hosting an experience to understand what kind of experience it is and how we’re meant to be in that experience. And so, lot of people will cook elaborate dinners and they’re not necessarily good at cooking elaborate dinners without being stressed out. And don’t do it. Order some takeout if that’s what it takes, if that’s what your comfort level is. So, focus on the people that are there, not on perfecting your chicken a la king as you mentioned.
So, you’ve got them there. The beauty of the website and the toolkit you get from the website, is the website leads you to a couple of questions. It’s kind of like choose your own adventure. It’s the only thing to do on the website is answer a couple of questions and then get a toolkit, a script for your evening. And the questions ask you who’s coming, and that’s just kind of a engagement question. Does affect any of the content. And then the second question is pretty key, it’s what’s you intention for having the dinner.
So, perhaps you have found out, or somebody in your life has found out that they have a terminal diagnosis. Anybody who’s struggling with a serious terminal diagnosis, death is in some way in the room. They’re thinking about it. They might not be talking to you about it. But it’s a presence, right? And some people when they are struggling with a terminal diagnosis really want an opportunity to chat with their community, to talk with their community openly. So, that’d be kind of an extreme situation where somebody would want to have one of these dinners. Maybe you’re a young family that just wants to get this planning done. Maybe your parents are getting a little bit older and you want to have the conversation with them. Or you’re getting older and you want to have the conversation with your kids, your grown adult kids. Or you think it’s a philosophically interesting conversation. You want to delve into it with your friends.
So when you select, those are all the intentions are listed out, and when you select them, what it does is then create a customized script, and it starts with a very simple ritual I guess you could call it where you acknowledge somebody who’s not longer with us, somebody who’s died in your life. And this can be somebody you knew well or if you’re younger and you haven’t had many losses, it might be somebody that you idolize or looked up to, or an animal. It could be, death has many different shares. So you acknowledge that person, say something the impact they had on your life, and then there will be three or four questions that have been selected based upon your intention. Things like what song would you have performed at your funeral? And who would sing it? What would you want your last meal to be?
So, those are kind of the more icebreaker conversation prompts that done necessarily read as we’re having a death conversation, because they’re a little bit more accepted in our culture.
And then there’s the most deep end of the pool conversations as people warm up, and those are questions like you have 30 days left to live. You just found out that you’re only going to be here for another month. How do you feel? What are you going to spend your next 30 days doing? What is your last hour like or last day like? Who’s around you? How do you feel close to the end? And you learn a lot about yourself when you answer that question. A lot of these, the beauty of these dinners and the reason why I’ve been able to host so many personally is because they never get dull because people are always surprising themselves. You hear people say things you maybe that they’ve never said out loud or maybe they’ve never even thought or put together as a combination of educate themselves about themselves is pretty extraordinary to watch. It’s maybe one of the most beautiful things.
And then spouses and partners and siblings and parents and kids also learn about each other, and old friends learn things that they never knew about each other from these questions. And that’s, I mean that kind of discovery or new information is what fuels intimacy. Intimacy in a friendship, intimacy in a love relationship, intimacy in a parent-child relationship. That kind of deep human connection happens to every one of these dinner I’ve ever been at and every one I’ve ever heard somebody talk about.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I always think it’s interesting, to learn about life you often have to talk about death. That’s sort of the most profound insights about life is whenever you have that conversation.
Michael Hebb: Yeah. I mean it’s the great mirror. Right? It is what defines this thing called life. If we didn’t have death, it would just be existence. Right? Life is by its very nature this temporary, this finite thing. And there’s been incredible studies done where, again this is this death phobic culture, these don’t become front page news, these studies, but was it Princeton I believe did a study where they determined that facing death and talking about death increased your sense of humor and also made you funnier. Which is really phenomenal to see.
Also, this remarkable clinical psychologist working in New York, Jordana Jacobs, and she’s done the first of a series of studies to see how facing our mortality and embracing the fact that we do die leads to more intimacy and more connection in our long-term relationships. Which is what people want in their long-term relationships. And they do a lot of extraordinary things to try to increase intimacy, to increase the fire, and maintain it and sustain it. And it’s like, but you could also just talk about death. Maybe it translates into the bedroom.
Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about some of these prompts, these questions that you have in your toolkit. Like the one of them is why don’t we talk about death? When you’ve brought that question up at your dinners, what are some of the answers you’ve gotten over the years?
Michael Hebb: Yeah. I mean, it’s a great question. And it’s funny, it’s one of the questions that is a little bit more of philosophical nature, and I’m very careful when I, when we ask questions that don’t result in I statements. So, it’s maybe the only question in the book and that we use in a dinner that doesn’t directly have somebody talk about their own experience. It’s a place where people will talk about our culture, and, which is great to talk about our culture. Death dinners are designed around people talking about their own experience. Because there are no experts in death, and you’re the only person who’s an expert on how you feel about your own mortality.
But as far as why we don’t talk, I’ve learned a lot about from doctors and nurses about how we’ve medicalized death. In the same way that we medicalize birth. There’s a lot of parallels, not surprisingly, between the culture and the machine and the business of being born and that of dying. And we’ve taken birth in many ways from a very community, family experience and we’ve made it a very medical experience, often at great cost to individuals. And there’s been some great improvements as well, and a lot of children that wouldn’t be on this planet and the humans that wouldn’t be on this planet without the medicalization of birth.
But we’ve done it very effectively with death as well, taken from a community act. In other words, we don’t encounter bodies anymore that are, we don’t see people dying, very rarely are we at the bedside of somebody dying. Very rarely are we confronted with a body. And so, it’s left our daily experience and has entered into this more professional realm. And so, instead of there being some dark conspiracy out there for why we don’t have this conversation, I think it’s a little bit more like the need to get back to growing our own food and cooking our own food, and realizing that there’s incredible value, and the pendulum swing too far in the direction of modernization and technology and away from human experience. So, that’s true in food, that’s true in birth and that’s true in death.
Brett McKay: Another one of the prompts that I liked a lot was what is the most significant end of life experience of which you’ve been a part? Are there any answers to that question that really stood out to you over the years?
Michael Hebb: Yeah.
Brett McKay: I’m sure there’s too many of them. But I mean like, do they all have something in common? Right?
Michael Hebb: Know what? They do, actually.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Michael Hebb: Because there’s those that talk about a horrific loss or a devastating loss, and then there’s people when you bring up this question or questions about death in general, and you see this almost light come into their face, into their eyes, into their being. And I don’t mean to get religious with it, because it’s not what I’m saying, but there’s this kind of glow that comes over people when they start telling stories about how they got very present to the passing of a loved one, instead of resisting it, instead of suffering through it or fighting it, but turn towards what was the opportunity of the moment. How to really be with this person that I love as they die. Like I got into bed, into the even the hospital bed or the hospice bed to be next to my Mom when she had her last breath. Or the whole family was around her.
And it’s not that there was some incredible wisdom imparted at the last moment by my grandmother, but the fact that we were all there and with her and present for her when she had her last breath and she gave her last breath, those stories where people turn towards it. It’s not always the case. Sometimes you turn towards it and the person who’s dying is having a really, really hard time, and that can be a very difficult experience for everybody involved. But when you hear about an experience where people have really stopped everything, made it their priority, because the thing is, it’s a terrible thing to regret. And that’s, and I regret not being there when my father died and not spending time with him during his last years and days. And you don’t want to carry that regret around. I talk to a lot of people that didn’t drop everything. Thought that work or some other thing in their life was more of a priority for some reason, maybe because they didn’t want to face what was actually happening. And that’s a terrible burden and regret to have to carry with you.
Brett McKay: And you also encounter people that whole experience of death, like they experience it firsthand where they have like sort of a, like they almost die. They’re on the doorstep. And that experience changed them forever, but like yet because we don’t talk about death, we never get to hear about those type of things.
Michael Hebb: Yeah these, I mean I almost call them like ghost stories, right? We will tell ghost stories, but we won’t talk too often about our own strange connection with people that have died. It can be like, “Well, I saw a ghost once,” or somebody saw a ghost once in a house, or the number of people who feel like they’re in some level of communication, whether that’s just a presence or a feeling, or people all the way to a level of mediums, or people that have had near death experiences, and medically-speaking they have been dead and have come back to life and have had experiences, they’re experiences very similar. There’s archetypal experiences that people have. I don’t have an opinion on what is valid or what is true. I know that those experiences are very true to the people, or very meaningful and very real for the people that have them.
And because we don’t talk about this death, because we don’t talk about the connection between those that are living and those who are dead with any kind of comfort or any kind of literacy, we don’t share a great deal of our experience. Most people have something to say about this. I’ve felt my father’s presence not in an embodied form, but just as a kind of presence in my life. It’s hard for me to describe, mostly because we don’t talk about these things, don’t have words for it, since he died. And it’s a real part of my experience. And I bet that most of the people listening have some kind of encounter or relationship, or have at least have somebody in their life that wants to talk to them about this kind of connection with the people who aren’t here.
Brett McKay: Are there certain types of deaths that people, even if you get them talking about death like in the abstract, or maybe even talk about specific instances. There are some instances of death where they just like, people just don’t want to go there at all.
Michael Hebb: Yeah. Well, that’s the thing, when you have a culture that denies death or represses this conversation, represses so much. I mean, we repress so much emotion. This is, your work is around the masculine, and one of the reasons I think very clearly one of the reasons why we are in such a crisis in this country around the masculine and men are having such a hard time, first time in more than 100 years that the suicide rate has increased to the level where the mortality, the age expectancy of white men in America is actually being reduced. What is that trend? And the trend is as a relationship to both suicide and overdose and opioid crisis, and that’s a painkiller. Suicide’s also a painkiller. So, when we talk about what deaths or what things are off the table or too painful to talk about.
That’s within the context of a society that represses so many things. And the reality is, repression leads to disease. Repression also leads to isolation and depression. And so, I think that we want to cultivate a culture, cultivate a environment where we can talk about any kind of death, any kind of loss and have it not feel like it’s a stigma. And so we have a lot of work to do where people can feel comfortable where combat troops coming back from serving time feel comfortable talking about the traumatic experiences they’ve had, or doctors feel comfortable talking about, and nurses the traumatic experiences they’ve had in the ICU. Currently there’s very little opportunity. There’s more opportunity for soldiers than there are for doctors to talk about these things. And we have the highest burnout rate in the medical profession of any other profession.
So to answer your question, I’m interested in a future where there isn’t a type of death that feels unmentionable. Right now, suicide terribly isolates the survivors. It’s one of these incredible tragedies where isolation most likely led to the fact that somebody decided that they didn’t want to be here. A sense of isolation. And then when somebody does commit suicide, the family members, we isolate as a culture, we isolate family members and survivors by not openly talking to them about their loss, because we’re uncomfortable with it, we feel like they must be uncomfortable with it. They’re thinking about it. Have a conversation with people who have lost people from suicide. They want to know you’re there and they want to know that you’re willing to meet them at that level, because they don’t want to be left alone. When people have lost children. That is a very real, it’s a very alive thing for them.
Somebody had lost, and I’ve spent a lot of time with people who have lost children, that child never goes away. They don’t want to have you, at some point, and they’ll let you know if they don’t want to talk about it, but people don’t want to feel that they can’t connect with you around what is now the most real thing in their life. I just thought of the film Roma, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but talk about a powerful reminder of the potency of what it means to lose a child. I’m not going to give away any of the spoiler, but there’s, exists in that movie, and I don’t think I’ve seen a more powerful movie in cinema maybe ever in my life.
So, we want to have these conversations. And they’re not for everybody. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done on oneself to get to the point where we’re comfortable talking about these difficult things. But it starts by taking a risk. It starts by find out where your edge is and stepping over it and being vulnerable.
Brett McKay: So, I mean having that conversation going like about losing a child, or say someone in their family committed suicide, like how do you bring that? I mean it seems like to me you wouldn’t bring that up at a Death Over Dinner. That seems like something you’d do, I don’t know, when the time was right. Like how do you bring up, how do you broach that topic? So, it sounds like people want to talk about it, or maybe some people don’t, but some people do. How do you as a person who wants to mourn with those that mourn, right, do that? I mean is it going to be, I guess is it going to be awkward? Like you just have to accept that and then to see where it goes after you broach that line?
Michael Hebb: Yeah. No, it’s the fact, if you have the courage. Because it’s really a courage issue. You’re doing something that is uncomfortable, something that is beyond the known areas of your life to go up to somebody and say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you and I’ve been thinking about your loss. And if you want to talk about it, I want to let you know that I’m here for you. I may not be the best person for it. I feel a little bit uncomfortable right now, but I don’t want you to feel alone.” Right? And you can say that when you’re getting coffee, when you’re on a break and you run into them in a hallway. You can say that via email. you can say that via voice memo. You can say that via Facebook Messenger. There’s any number of ways that you can say that thing, and that is never going to be, I would say almost never going to be met with like, “Go away,” and “How dare you?” Right?
And so, if we’re looking for the right moment to say something as simple and human as what I just said, it’s now. And then it’s now and it’s now and it’s now. If you have somebody in your life who’s had one of these devastating losses, there is nothing but good that is going to come from saying, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you. I want you to know you can talk to me about this.” And just be honest about the fact I’m not a therapist obviously. You know that I’m not even good at these conversations. I’m scared as hell to bring it up to you, but I really don’t want you to feel alone. It’s more important to me that you don’t feel alone. Right?
That to me like, the person’s going to be impacted pretty powerfully.
Brett McKay: So we’ve been talking about, speaking of kids, like how do you, should you have these Death Over Dinner conversations with your kids, and if so, how do you bring that up? Or do kids just bring it up?
Michael Hebb: Yeah, you’ve got kids right?
Brett McKay: I do have kids, yeah.
Michael Hebb: Yeah. Do they ask, are they curious about death?
Brett McKay: My oldest is pretty existential.
Michael Hebb: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Which is, he’s like, I don’t know. Yeah, he’s like an existential philosopher, he’s eight.
Michael Hebb: Yeah. Totally. So, here’s the thing is every kid, they’re all snowflakes, right? They all have their own personality from the moment they’re born or way before they’re born, who knows when they’re imparted that? But I’ve got couple of girls. One is 18, one’s 10, and it’s very much like anybody. With kids, if they’re curious about it, if they want to have this conversation, if they’re asking questions, then meet them there. Right? The thing that you don’t want to do with a kid is be like, “Don’t talk about that,” or “We don’t talk about that,” or repress or shame them around that conversation. You’re starting a pattern where you’re telling them one, that they can’t be their authentic self, which, in that they have to change the way that they’re being in order to get your love.
And that’s, it’s one thing when they’ve decided to do something like run into the street. You want to shame them. That’s keeping them safe. But when suddenly your kid wants to talk about something existential that maybe even makes you uncomfortable, tell them. Say, “Hey, it makes me uncomfortable, but I hear that you’re curious, and so let’s maybe explore this together.” Kids who have some anxiety around it, they’re really reaching out and telling you that they have some concern and worry, you can tell them, “Listen, we’re very much alive right now.” Some kids don’t sleep because they think about death and nothingness, and you can tell them, “Hey, we’re very much alive right now. Everybody in our life is very much alive. Let’s breathe, let’s be in our body, let’s be grateful for that. And maybe not in the middle of the night think about things that are existential. But during the day, let’s do some exploration.” Your kids are telling you something very essential about themselves when they start asking these questions.
Now if they’re not curious, my 10-year-old is like, poor girl has to deal with being adjacent to or in, whether she wants to be or not, conversations about death all the time. She has zero interest in it. Zero. And so, and she literally, she’ll like headphones, and I don’t think she’s even avoiding it. She’s just not, it’s not really that, it’s not relevant to her right now and she doesn’t want to make it relevant. And so, I don’t ever push the conversation on her.
My 18-year-old, we delve into all types of realms of conversations about this. Yeah.
Brett McKay: What does your 10-year-old say when people ask, “What does your Dad do?”
Michael Hebb: That’s a good question. She will say, “Well he wrote a book and he does dinners.” And, “What’s the book about?” “It’s about death.” And she will roll her eyes a little bit. It’s-
Brett McKay: Yeah. I can see that.
Michael Hebb: Clear indication to not further the conversation.
Brett McKay: And I imagine you can have multiple of these dinners, like with the same people, right? This is like an ongoing conversation. This isn’t like a one and done thing, it’s like, “All right, check it off, did my, talked about death.” Like you could keep it going for months, even years.
Michael Hebb: Yeah, this is the opening. And you don’t necessarily need to, once you’ve cracked open the conversation at a Death Dinner, I don’t think you necessarily need to use the model again and again. You might. You might want to use it with certain people, different people. But once you’ve cracked the seal on this conversation with your family and friends, hopefully you now just have some access to delving into this level of discussion more readily. And then there are other tools out there. There’s death cafes and there’s the Conversation Project, and there’s Croak. There’s a bunch of great resources. We’re just out there just doing one, hitting one kind of note in a whole kind of I guess, symphony of stuff.
Brett McKay: How do you end a Death Over Dinner party? Is it just like, “Well, all right. See you tomorrow or next week.”
Michael Hebb: Yeah. So, yeah endings are really important. Psychologically it’s been proven that we remember right, the beginning and the ending of an experience moreso than anything that happened in the middle. First impressions are really important, so are last impressions. And so, the way that we have devised it is for, is called an appreciation in a round. And we have everybody go around and say something they admire about the person sitting on their left so that everybody gets appreciated or admired once. And that actually, what that does is kind of chemically, it’s almost like, closing a wound is maybe too gruesome, but it creates a chemical change in your body that lets you know that you can enter back into the not talking about death world. And when you get appreciated or admire somebody, you have oxytocin and some other very positive chemical outputs your brain is creating and surging through your body, and that lets you know you’re no longer in the depths of triggering conversation. Potentially triggering. I don’t want to, it’s not like all of these, some of these conversations are, I’d say even the majority are just beautiful. This isn’t a morbid conversation.
Brett McKay: Well Michael, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the project?
Michael Hebb: Yeah well, so deathoverdinner.org. And we’re part of a family of initiatives, really extraordinary global well-being movement and company called Round Glass, so that is www.round.g-l-a-s-s, Round Glass.
Brett McKay: Right. Well Michael Hebb, thanks for much time. It’s been a pleasure.
Michael Hebb: Absolutely, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Michael Hebb. He’s the founder of Death Over Dinner. You can find out more information about that organization by going to deathoverdinner.org. Also check out his book, Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere, basically a blueprint for you on how to plan a Death Over Dinner party and what to talk about.
Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/deathoverdinner where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our podcast archives at artofmanliness.com/podcast where you can see all 500 there. We also got thousands of articles we’ve written over the years on personal finance, fitness, style. You name it, we’ve got it. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you not only listen to the AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve herd into action.