COM 592 / What We Learned

Let’s get one thing straight; this is not a morbid piece of writing. These are the truest life facts we’ll all universally encounter and here they are: I’m going to die. You’re going to die. The strangers who cut you off on the freeway or held the door open for you at the grocery store will die too. Our pets, family, friends, loved ones and others once familiar but now forgotten faces will one day no longer physically be here on earth. While we’re all headed for the great beyond, how we get there isn’t always the same. Instantaneous or drawn out, at home or in a hospital, surrounded by loved ones or alone, we each have our preferred way of departing, but more often than not, we don’t always get what we want.

Questions about death were the centerpiece of conversations this quarter in the MCDM course, The Table of Truth: Re-imagining the Dinner Table as a Digital Media Storytelling Tool. With 80% of American healthcare dollars spent on the last two years of a person’s life, this is the most important conversation the United States is not having. Our main question for the quarter was simply, how do you want to die? Suddenly, a snap judgment answer, “At home, Notebook style,” got a little more complicated.

The MCDM course, The Table of Truth: Re-imagining the Dinner Table as a Digital Media Storytelling Tool, was dreamt up by Associate Director Scott Macklin and MCDM Fellow Michael Hebb.



Photo by Scott Macklin

This ten-student class has met every Wednesday from 6-9 p.m. at the fabulous [storefront] Olson Kundig location during the Fall quarter. The purpose of this class is to investigate the future of the table and its relationship to digital media. Our Table of Truth is a forceful piece that digitally records, captures, inspires, and transmits the stories we tell around it each session. Our questions for the quarter have revolved around death, and mainly, how we want to die. With 80% of American healthcare dollars spent on the last two years of lives, this is the most important conversation the United States is not having.

Outside of class we’ve read from Aristotle, Greek symposiums, and how to properly execute a dinner party with refined etiquette according to Robert Farrar Capon. We’ve also spent a fair amount of time musing over Jae Rhim Lee’s Mushroom Burial Suit TED talk. (If you think you’re eco-friendly, check her out.) We’ve heard from the brilliant minds Bess Lovejoy author of Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, palliative care and oncologist physician Anthony Back, headstone artist Greg Lundgren, poet Kate Lebo, and and many more. A major partner for this project is Alexandra Drane, who gave both a tear-jerking and heartwarming TEDMED2010 talk about discussing death and death care with family. Our time in and outside of the classroom has been well spent.

But with all of our immersion into death, which is just as much a conversation about life, our most rewarding class experience came on All Hallows Eve where our Olson Kundig table was opened to our friends and family as we prepared dinner for a communal discussion.


Photo by Scott Macklin

We served an escarole, persimmon and almond salad with fabulous feta cheese crumbles; taro, turnips, romanesco and onions; a vegetarian tamale with cherry tomatoes and oregano and a chicken sausage and chipotle tamale both covered with a complimenting pumpkin seed mole. For dessert (because you can’t go this far into a meal without dessert), Mexican hot chocolate and lady-finger cookies were snacked on. And maybe 6-8 bottles of wine and Bassano del Grappa.


Photo by Scott Macklin

If you didn’t get your tuition’s worth from this class, I don’t know what would.

Delicious food aside, the point of this dinner was to express ideas with people from our networks and communities. We each opened a vein of vulnerability that night and expressed deep emotions and personal feelings around the idea of death. Death iconography, sugar skulls, shows like Dexter, The Walking Dead, and zombie apocalypses have become pop-culture norms, yet we’re still not only afraid of death itself but afraid of talking about it, too. At our Halloween community dinner, a major

conclusion to be drawn was that when people die, they would like it to be fast, or while asleep without feeling any pain. I myself said “Notebook style”, wrapped up in the arms of my loved one. Though our topic has revolved around death, I think it’s really been about pain and experiencing the uncomfortable human emotions and feelings of vulnerability, weakness, and loss of control. It seems these are more frightening than death. Death, depending on what you believe in, is perhaps just drifting off into permanent, oblivious slumber-land, a step to reincarnation, or a path toward eternal happiness and joy. What’s to fear about that? Pain and death are associated together but perhaps might be better looked at as somewhat mutually exclusive.

Original Post:

March 7th, 2013