Death Over Dinner

Posted on in Healthy Living by Stephanie Gailing

Breaking Bread and
Breaking Taboos


Over the past few years, death has become a hot topic.

Books like Being Mortal and When Breath Becomes Air grace the New York Times best-sellers list. Medicare now subsidizes doctors to have end-of-life discussions with patients. Green burials and alternative death care options are becoming more popular. Death cafes are springing up worldwide.

We’re experiencing a revolution in awareness: more and more people are realizing that to live life with a greater sense of well-being, they need to start addressing end of life, pulling it out of the shadows in which it has resided for so long.

Yet talking about death is far from easy.

Michael Hebb wants to change that.

Years ago, after a seemingly destined dialogue with two physicians he met while on a train, Hebb realized the staggering cost—personally, socially, and economically—of avoiding talking about end-of-life concerns. This catalyzed his desire to create an initiative that would inspire conversations and break the collective silence we’ve adopted around death and dying.

But how to make people feel more comfortable discussing a topic that can illicit such discomfort? Hebb immediately knew: inspire people to have these conversations at the place that reflects comfort, nurturance, and connection—the dinner table.

And with that, Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death was born.

Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death ( is an online platform that walks you through the steps of gathering your friends, family, and/or colleagues to have this life-affirming conversation. Also known as Death Over Dinner, when the project launched in August 2013, it did so with 500 dinners in 20 countries. Since then, there have been over 100,000 Death Dinners worldwide. It seems that talking about death is a conversation many have been hungry for.

What is it about the dinner table that is so transformational when it comes to people being more open in talking about death and dying? As many Death Dinner participants have noted, the ritual of gathering around the table to break bread with others also breaks through boundaries and fears they felt when they began thinking about end-of-life issues.

If you’ve read this far, likely you feel a calling—or at least a curiosity—to want to have this conversation, to connect to and share your thoughts and feelings about end of life with others. But you may wonder, Will my community think it odd for me to invite them to a Death Dinner? Chances are if you’re drawn to this subject, many of them will be as well, and may feel relieved to be granted permission to have this conversation. Many Death Dinner attendees have shared that their guests took the initiative to organize their own gathering, as they had been wanting to explore this topic but didn’t know where to start.

Speaking of places to start, how do you get started in hosting a Death Dinner? The website provides you with the tools you need (minus the food and beverages, of course). Not sure how to word the invitation? There’s a template for that. Even if you’ve never moderated a discussion before—let alone one with this gravitas—the website will empower you through tips on how to host the gathering and gives you a series of conversation prompts to encourage the flow of dialogue.

Since people have different concerns and backgrounds when it comes to death and dying, before you get your toolkit, you answer a series of questions including who will attend the dinner and what the intention is (“I’m interested in this for philosophical or spiritual reasons” and “I work in healthcare or a related field” are among the seven choices). From there, you get to select what you want your guests to read, watch, and listen to, to get them into predinner contemplation mode (this “homework” includes choices such as “Last Day” from Charlotte’s Web and Steve Job’s How to Live Before You Die video).

If you feel like you’ll be a renegade having a Death Dinner, you may be interested in knowing that they are now having greater institutional appeal. For example, Death Over Dinner recently teamed up with major medical institutions like Blue Cross Blue Shield and Providence to host dinners with CEOs and doctors, University of Washington Medicine is creating a doctors’ and nurses’ edition of Death Over Dinner, and an Australian version with major governmental support is launching in May 2016.

If April looks like a good time for you to host your dinner, schedule it for somewhere between April 16 and 22 and you can be part of “The National Dinner Party to Dine and Discuss Death.” This collaboration between Death Over Dinner and The Conversation Project ( is slated to feature thousands of gatherings around the country.

Thankfully, we’re living in a time when the topic of death is less shrouded, and talking about it is helping to not only encourage more ease and grace during end of life but also a sense of freedom during life itself. As Hebb reflects, “I believe that together, we have changed the national conversation about dying, which is resulting in more embodied, empowered experiences at the end of life.”

So have a dinner and talk about death, and you very well may feel more connected to life.

Stephanie Gailing, MS, is a wellness consultant who offers clients and readers stellar insights, lifestyle strategies, and thoughtful guidance to inspire their well-being.

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