Why You Should Talk About Death over Dinner

Written by Jenny Smiechowski, staff writer for The Birches

Your parents probably taught you that certain topics don’t make good dinner conversation—religion, politics, money or anything controversial. But what about death?

Even though death is an unavoidable part of life, people don’t like to talk about it. Try bringing death up at your next dinner party or family dinner and see what happens. Your friends and family will most likely shoot you a sidelong glance and change the topic.

But here’s why death shouldn’t be a taboo topic at the dinner table…

People in the U.S. desperately need to talk about it. Too many of us take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to death. The problem is, treating death like it doesn’t exist, doesn’t make it go away. It just leaves everyone unprepared when it happens.

That doesn’t mean you should bring up death at every social gathering you attend. If you do that, your social calendar will clear up pretty quickly! But you can set aside a special time for good food, good company and a candid conversation about death by hosting a death dinner.

What is a death dinner?

A death dinner is a dinner party where there’s only one topic of conversation that isn’t taboo—death. People all over the country—and world—have hosted and attended death dinners, including team members and family members from The Birches Assisted Living.

In fact, The Birches hosted its first death dinner last month to encourage people in The Birches community to start talking about death. The dinner was a small gathering where everyone opened up about what they want when they die while they ate delicious Italian food at Il Poggiolo Ristorante in Hinsdale.

“We prepare for everything, but we don’t prepare for death,” said The Birches’ Sales and Marketing Director MaryBeth Beatty. “So our goal was to prompt that conversation and to encourage people to talk to their loved ones before it’s too late.”

The death dinner movement began in 2013 when Michael Hebb and Angel Grant founded the nonprofit organization Death Over Dinner. Hebb and Grant’s inspiration for Death Over Dinner arose from one alarming statistic: 75 percent of Americans want to die at home, but only 25 percent do. As a result, Hebb and Grant determined that “how we want to die is the most important and costly conversation America isn’t having.”

At an assisted living community like The Birches, where many of the residents are in their 80s and 90s, death is a part of daily life. But many people are still unprepared for it.

“So many people have no idea what to do when their mom’s or their dad’s death is imminent. We see that all the time, and we’re always trying to give them guidance. We’ve experienced it in our personal lives too. So everyone could use a reminder to plan ahead and have these conversations now, while they still can,” said Birches’ Director of Encore and Dementia Care Services Katie Schaff Fagan.

In case you’re wondering, the conversation at death dinners goes beyond droll discussions about legalities like wills and power of attorney. It gets much more personal than that. And, according to Beatty, planning for death should always delve into the personal.

“Everyone thinks because the documentation is in hand, they’re finished, they don’t have to do anything else. But there’s so much more planning. It’s even the simple things, like the music they want played, or what they want to wear,” said Beatty. “Deciding this more personal stuff eliminates so much stress from your loved ones at one of their most devastating points.”

Hosting a death dinner

If you’d like to host a death dinner, the nonprofit Death Over Dinner has made the process simple. When you visit the organization’s website, it prompts you through a series of questions that help you plan your dinner in only a few minutes.

They provide you with reading, listening and viewing material to prepare your guests for the dinner, and they send you an email that tells you exactly what to say in your death dinner invitation. The only things you have to decide are who to invite and where to host your dinner.

As you plan a death dinner, you may learn that some people in your life can’t handle a candid conversation about death. That’s okay. Death dinners aren’t for everybody. If you still want a loved one to document his or her wishes about death, you can try a softer approach.

Katie Schaff Fagan recommends asking loved ones to write out end-of-life wishes and put them in a folder somewhere safe, so you know where to find it. For some, writing about death privately is easier than talking about it openly. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to make death a less taboo topic—at the dinner table and beyond.

“People are so resistant to talking about death,” said Beatty. “But the truth is, the more we talk about it, the easier it becomes. That fear just starts to go away.”