Taking the Fear Out of Death Planning

Taking the Fear Out of Death Planning

By Daisy Maxey
Nov. 19, 2013 11:08 a.m. ET

Catherine Seeber plans to give her sisters a gift this Thanksgiving Day: a packet containing information to help them prepare for death.

That will sound oddly morbid to some, Ms. Seeber realizes, but she feels there’s no better gift one can give.

As a senior financial adviser at Wescott Financial Advisory Group, she knows how important it is for people to plan for their deaths and share those decisions with loved ones. Yet many are reluctant to do so, or unaware that they should.

Death Over Dinner: A prototype dinner to discuss end of life, held in San Francisco in October 2012. From left to right: David Kirchoff, former chief executive of Weight Watchers; Dr. Jordan Shlain; Alexandra Drane, chief executive Eliza Corp.; Dr. Shauna Shapiro; Terry Clark, chief marketing officer, United Healthcare; Shirley Bergin, chief operating officer, TEDMED; Jon Ellenthal, President TEMED; Michael Hebb; writer David Ewing Duncan; and Matthew Wiggins, chief vibration officer, Remedy Partners Wayne Price

Everyone should make one day a death-planning day, which can be combined with a birthday or holiday, says Ms. Seeber, whose Philadelphia firm manages $1.8 billion. When death is discussed behind closed doors, anxiety levels rise, but incorporating the discussion over something as casual as a dinner party lessens its awkwardness and intimidation, she says.

That’s one reason she loves the concept of “Death over Dinner,” developed by Michael Hebb, a teaching fellow at the University of Washington. Often referred to as a “food provocateur,” Mr. Hebb–who formerly ran restaurants in Portland, Ore.–has found his niche in gathering groups at the table to tackle issues such as genocide, educating African youth and the effectiveness of philanthropy, with leaders in those areas.

In conjunction with nonprofit organizations and foundations, such as Architecture for Humanity and the World Economic Forum, he’s held such discussions over tables in Gabon, Ethiopia and across the U.S. Dinner guests have included film director Spike Lee, feminist Gloria Steinem, author Gore Vidal and journalist and author Paul Krugman.

“Death Over Dinner,” Mr. Hebb’s project, seeks to take a sledgehammer to the taboo of talking about death. Working with a group of healthcare and wellness professionals, Mr. Hebb encourages everyone to gather relatives, friends, significant others, co-workers and even strangers to the table to break bread and talk about matters such as terminal illnesses, the loss of a loved one or how they’d like their own death handled.

The act hearkens back to the time when our ancestors gathered around a fire, he says: “There’s a really rich tradition of important and meaningful concerns being discussed around breaking bread and consuming wine; it’s where prayer and song began.”

When the project was launched Aug. 24, 300 to 400 dinners were held in 15 countries, Mr. Hebb says. Thousands of people have held their own dinners since then to discuss these topics.

Mr. Hebb isn’t surprised if some wonder, “What the hell is wrong with this guy?” he says. But he notes that while most Americans want to die at home, few do. Just 27% of Americans died at home in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The end-of-life experience “is bankrupting us personally, institutionally and governmentally, and we’re not getting what we want,” he says.

At the project’s website, created in conjunction with master’s students at the University of Washington, those who want to consider holding their own dinner answer a few questions, such as “who’s coming to dinner?” and “what’s the intention of the dinner?” They’re then sent suggested invitation text for their guests, a little homework–a related short video, brief reading material and a blog discussion–to help guests prepare for the talk as well as suggested prompts to keep the discussion moving.

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When a dinner is completed, guests are directed to another website, “I Survived a Death Dinner.” In collaboration with Everplans, the free website details end-of-life decisions individuals should make, such as writing a will, naming a power of attorney, establishing a trust, organizing important documents and planning their funeral, and offers links to help find needed documents.

Eric Weinstein, managing director at venture-capital firm Thiel Capital, attended a “Death Over Dinner” discussion at a home in Napa, Calif., with a group of around 10 people, only some of whom he knew. The experience was extraordinary, he says.

“We went around the table at some point and shared our own thoughts about departing, whether we want more life or whether we’re coming to grips with our own mortality,” says Mr. Weinstein. “Being around the warmth of family and friends, around food and intimacy and culture, [Mr. Hebb] has found, in some sense, a way back into our own cultural history, where all of our traditional cultures had to deal with death–in a more intimate, less sort of institutional setting.”

For those looking to begin the conversation on death, holding such dinners is a great idea, says Robert Schein, managing director and partner at HighTower Palm Desert. It’s the Palm Desert, Calif., office of HighTower Advisors LLC, a Chicago-based firm which handles $12.34 billion in assets.

In the last four weeks before his father’s death, doctors were coming to Mr. Schein and his family with one medical decision after another, but his father had already made all of those difficult decisions, he says.

Write to Daisy Maxey at daisy.maxey@wsj.com

November 19th, 2013