Ask a Genius: Why dinner & death go together

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Ask a Genius: Why dinner & death go together

Michael Hebb started out in architecture. He wanted to create places where people could convene and connect. About 20 years ago, he realized he could do just that without building a thing — he could just invite people to dinner.

"I didn't need to build expensive buildings for people to have powerful experiences," Hebb said. "I could just have them remember how to powerfully connect over the dinner table."

His career has focused on fostering conversations over meals ever since, collaborating with the Obama Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative and the Dalai Lama, to name a few. In 2013, after teaching a course called "Let's Have Dinner and Talk About Death" with Scott Macklin, Hebb sought to expand difficult dinner conversations. He co-founded Death Over Dinner, a website that helps people plan dinner parties centering around one conversation topic: death.

The website helps users decide whom to invite, suggests material for reading, watching and listening before the dinner, provides text for invitations and offers conversation prompts. Hundreds of thousands of people have since taken part in "Death Dinners," Hebb said.

We talked to him about why death makes for good dinner conversation.

Our conversation with Michael Hebb is the latest edition of Ask a Genius, our regular series of talks with brilliant people.

Why should people talk about death?

There's a tremendous set of benefits and advantages to having an open conversation about end of life wishes. Because we've separated ourselves from the dying and we've medicalized death as well as we possibly could, we don't have natural encounters and our literacy around the topic is at an all-time low. When literacy is low, empowerment is low, agency is low — it's not hard to make the leap between people who can't read or write and their lack of empowered agency and the likelihood of being oppressed. The same thing with death.

If we're not comfortable and fluent with our own end of life wishes, with the topic, with the ability to talk about these things with our loved ones who will be making decisions for us hopefully, if we don't have that level of fluency, we're not going to get what we want. We're not going to have the final days that we want. We're not going to have our legacy continue in the way we want. That's one principle reason.

The other is the topic itself is the most revealing topic around self-knowledge. If you value knowing thyself, it has always been in every tradition, every wisdom tradition, every religious tradition, that genuflecting on, considering, meditating on, talking about our mortality is the route for knowing our priorities, knowing who we are as humans. It's revealing.

The third-most potent reason is it's the quickest way to deepen your connection with the people in our lives. We know that human connection is the most important ingredient in longevity. So ironically, talking about death increases the length of our lives.

What are the financial aspects of death we should discuss?

Money is really a metaphysical, to some extent, representation of our priorities. So when people are talking about their goals, their priorities, what they want and how they want to live, money is the medium of that. It's how we express it in the world. So even if people aren't specifically discussing money when they're talking about death, there's a direct relationship.

If you really care about your legacy, that's one thing. But if you care about how your resources are going to impact the people in your life, not only just making it clear about what's happening to your resources but making it clear the people in your life why you made those decisions so they can understand them is a very compassionate thing to do.

How do you convince people to have this conversation?

It takes charm. It takes determination. It takes tenacity. It takes every part of you just like the other things that we value in our life do. If we treated our work lives and getting job, and we treated our romantic life and sex the way we treated having conversations about death, we would never get laid and we would never have a job. We don't utilize the same level of resource and creativity around having these conversations. As soon as there's a rejection, it's like going on a job interview and someone saying, "you're not the right fit," and then you never apply for another job again.

You're going to have to take a risk. You're going to have to say something that's vulnerable. There's a way to talk about end of life. I'm confident of that. It's just about finding the right way in.

How did this turn from a class into a global movement?

One, there is a tremendous need and desire, and two, that we designed it properly. It's a properly created invitation. It gives people permission. It's provocative enough, but beautiful enough and gentle enough to appeal to people all across the globe in almost every community that I've encountered. I think it's really the right idea at the right time and the right design.

What should people take away from a dinner?

For me it's really about opening a doorway into conversation and seeing what happens from there. People's lives are transformed and changed. Relationships are healed. People find out how to honor their loved ones, which you can't put a price tag on or calculate how important is. They're shown a model of deeply connecting over a dinner, saying vulnerable things, deep listening, so it depends on where the person is at. The potential for them to have a lot of takeaway is very high. There are a lot of dynamics happening within what is seemingly quite a simple dinner.

Whom should one invite to a Death Over Dinner?

It really varies. There are organizations that host monthly dinners: hospices, palliative care groups, activists, organizations that are interested in expanding end of life awareness. There are people who bring strangers together. There are people who post dinners on Craigslist.

Certainly a lot of people bring their families together. I think that's incredibly brave. It took me five years of doing these dinners to have the courage to bring my mom and brother to a table. I have a lot of compassion for how difficult it can be for a family dynamic.

People are having dinner with colleagues. I just had a dinner with the executive team and the department heads at the Cleveland Clinic, for instance. Now we're partnering with the Cleveland Clinic to create a medical edition of Death Over Dinner for health care practitioners and clinicians.

What tips do you have for making a death dinner a success?

If the host feels as comfortable as they possibly can. It's important to decide not to cook something that you find deeply stressful. People take their cues from their hosts.

I always caution people to make sure they're making something simple or something they're very comfortable with or they're ordering takeout. The conversation is more important than the cuisine.

Ambience is important. No one dances on a brightly lit dance floor. I wouldn't have the lights at 10. I would create an environment that feels a bit more intimate and a bit more warm than a lot of American dinner tables tend to be lit. Light candles. If you drink wine, have some wine handy. The other real successful ingredient is, say something that you're afraid to say. Say something vulnerable. Find an edge that you have. Step over it.

That dynamic is contagious. People will do the same. What you'll get is you'll learn things about yourself, your best friends, your parents, that you never knew.

Every time I sit down with a married couple, I hear, "I've never heard that before," or "You've never told me that," or "I've never told anybody this."

How has your perspective on death changed since Death Over Dinner started?

It's really opened my eyes to how difficult a conversation this is for people. I've developed a great deal of compassion for people. I've also just increased my love of humans. When people reveal the most beautiful parts of themselves at these dinners, they reveal things that are most important to them that they don't share often. I get to see that on a regular basis. Given the toxic culture that we're in, the political madness, and the great divisions in our society, it's pretty easy to get disillusioned or have a negative view of humanity. I get to be constantly reminded about how remarkable humans are.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

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Image: Chase Jarvis