Dinner in the Deep South. Decatur, GA

By Catherine Godbey

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On a cold winter evening, nine friends, relatives, partners and strangers gathered for a dinner party. Candles flickered on the wooden oval dining table as Karen Thomas welcomed the guests.

“We are here tonight to talk about death,” she said. “Let’s start with a quick toast to those who have gone before us.”

One by one, the diners raised a goblet and spoke the names of the dead. They remembered a stepmother who loved celebrations, a mother who feared dying, an influential grandfather, a 12-year-old boy in a red bathing suit and parents who embraced death.

“My mother was the only person who I have spoken with openly and comfortably about her own death,” Sharon Landis said. “She was a Baptist and believed in asking God for what she wanted. She told me she put in an order to God for a French country home in heaven.”

Laughter filled the room as the next toast — one to a mother, who, though not blessed with a singing voice, knew God would allow her to sing in the angel’s choir — began. This, Thomas granted, ranks as the most unusual dinner party she has hosted. The subject that brought the hodgepodge of guests, which included a medical worker, case manager, furniture store owner, music teacher, television personality, retirees and former speech pathologist, together was: death.

Widely considered a taboo topic, along the lines of politics and religion, mortality represented the core of the dinner table conversation. Over a meal of roasted peppers, glasses of wine and chocolate cake, discussion turned to how other cultures view mortality, fears of dying, end-of-life care and faith.

“My faith tells me there is life after death. Truthfully, though, sometimes, every once in a while, I wonder, does it just end. Once you’re dead, is that it?” Tip Tipton said.
Dubbed “Death Over Dinner,” the gathering challenges individuals to discuss what Benjamin Franklin called one of the certain events in life. Despite the certainty of death, most Americans ignore the topic.

Americans are a death-defying culture, said Debbie Heard, director of Hospice of the Valley, which serves Morgan and Lawrence counties.

“People used to live on farms. They saw the life cycle through the animals. When people died, they died at home. There were no machines and tubes connected to them,” Heard said. “Now, we have all the means of keeping people ‘alive,’ but they’re not really living. We have separated death out so much from life.”

According to a Pew Research Center survey, more than one-fourth of Americans have given no or little thought to their end-of-life medical treatment and only 35 percent have put their wishes in writing. A survey conducted by The Conversation Project found while 90 percent of Americans realize the importance of talking about their own end-of-life care, only 30 percent actually discussed it.

“I usually don’t tell people what I do at a dinner party because no one wants to sit next to me,” said Pat King, executive director of Hospice of Limestone County. “It’s just not something usually discussed, but these are discussions we need to have in a comfortable, familiar manner.”

The idea of using the dinner table as a setting to talk about death came when Seattle-based activist and restaurateur Michael Hebb started a conversation about end-of-life care with two doctors in a dining car of a train. He learned end-of-life expense represented the No. 1 cause of personal bankruptcy, and while more than 75 percent of Americans want to die at home, only 25 percent do.

“It occurred to me that how we end our lives is the most important and costly conversation America isn’t having,” Hebb wrote in a crowd sourcing campaign. “The dinner table is the most forgiving place for difficult conversation. The ritual of breaking bread creates warmth and connection and puts us in touch with our humanity.”

Since the first Death over Dinner last summer, more than 4,000 hosts, including cousins Karen Thomas and Jana Thomas, registered to hold parties.

“I do think about death. Growing up, death was always something our family was dealing with through grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles,” Karen Thomas said. “I also think realizing your own mortality is part of cherishing the life you have.”

In a choose-your-own adventure style operation, the Death over Dinner website leads prospective hosts in organizing the events, prompting them with questions about who will attend and the purpose of the dinner. Hosts can choose from options such as “I think being prepared for decline in health and end of life is super important,” “myself or a loved one is terminally ill” and “I am interested in this for philosophical or spiritual reasons.” The website provides pre-dinner reading materials and conversational prompts.

Sitting at the head of the dinner table, Karen Thomas’ mother Judy Thomas listened as Cookie Stoner shared her fear of dying and leaving her children, Ashlyn Tipton talked of her father, who lived to care for her mother, and Rebecca Lackey talked about her parents’ funeral preparations — “Both of my parents have their boxes picked out and know what their funerals will be like. They are not afraid to die.”

“My mother was afraid at times,” Judy Thomas said. “She hung on until she knew one of her daughters would be OK. The night we told her, ‘Please know we will take care of her always,’ that was the night she died.”
As cups of coffee and slices of chocolate cake appeared on the table, the conversation turned to “bucket lists.”

They talked of their dreams — of flying a World War II bomber, riding a galloping horse, traveling to Mount Everest, visiting Ephesus, Turkey, and taking off on a month-long bicycle adventure.

“All anyone can ask for is to be a player in life,” Landis said. “Whatever comes our way we embrace, whether that is joy or sorrow. We are so rooted in the habit of embracing, when death comes, we embrace it. I want to be a participant and do what is asked of me so my loved ones have a good death, and I can be there as they depart on this new journey.”

“Wouldn’t it be great if it was common for us to say, ‘When you leave, I’m going to miss you so much?’ ” said Marty Johnson, a dinner guest.
A foreign statement to many, a “good death” does exist, Heard said.
“The more open we are about this, the less morbid it becomes. There is such a thing as a good death, not just for the person who dies, but also for the loved ones left behind,” she said.

After witnessing her father’s difficult death from cancer, Heard’s mother voiced her wishes. When her mother stopped eating and drinking, no feeding tube was inserted and no extra measures taken — that is what her mother wanted.
“There is comfort knowing you have abided by their wishes,” Heard said.
Spurred by a population living longer, aging baby boomers and the cost of health care, more people are discussing end-of-life care, Heard and King said.
Like Karen Thomas, Heard hopes to spur the end-of-life conversation by hosting Death Over Dinner events this year.

“For me, this dinner and looking at death, is a way to motivate us to live life more fully,” Karen Thomas said. “If we do not recognize we are going to die, do we really treasure the life we have?”

July 12th, 2014