story 12

There is a power in speaking about something. Manhattan

By Shannon Pettypiece

At a Manhattan dinner party, former Citigroup Inc. (C) executive Steffen Landauer gathered an eclectic mix of guests at his apartment off Fifth Avenue to sip pinot noir, dine on seared salmon — and talk about death.

“I think about it a lot and talk about it very little,” Landauer said to the group, which included a filmmaker, a private school principal, and a professional storyteller. Not to be confused with a macabre parlor game, the evening was conceived to confront real-life issues wrapped up in death and dying that few people like to acknowledge, let alone talk about at a dinner party.

Landauer had brought together a group of social acquaintances to help air issues he has long been reluctant to tackle. Despite having four children ages 1 to 23, Landauer, 54, confessed that he only recently started working on a will, to the surprise of the group given his age and large family. Now, for the first time, he and his wife are having serious conversations about who would take care of their children if both parents died.

“Two weeks of doing my will has caused us to talk about it more than in 17 years of marriage, and we aren’t even really talking about it that much, we’re exchanging text messages,” he said.

As the group ate zucchini pancakes with caviar around the formal dining table, Laura Simms, a professional storyteller said, that at 65 she, too, lacks a will and has avoided planning for the end of her life despite having been diagnosed with cancer twice.

“I often forget I’m going to die,” Simms said. “I mean to make a will, I mean to clean out my closet so there isn’t anything embarrassing in there. And then I just forget.”
For the six New Yorkers, some of whom had met for the first time that evening, having a venue to talk about death was like releasing a pressure valve. With baroque music playing in the background, for three hours they shared stories of near death and supernatural experiences and the deaths of loved ones. They agreed that death lurks in the back of their minds, yet isn’t something they were comfortable talking about before.

Simms recalled a near-death experience she had when she was mugged in Central Park, the memory of a knife pressed against her throat still fresh in her mind.
“I realized in a few seconds I could be dead and I completely relaxed,” she said.
As the server removed the dessert plates and Landauer’s young daughter began stirring upstairs, many of the guests said they felt a kind of catharsis.

Since the dinner, Landauer has finished and signed his will and he says it forced him to think more concretely about what he’d like to happen to his remains. He has now made sure to include instructions in his will for his children to spread his ashes near a specific mountain in Tibet that he once visited.

“There is a power in speaking about something,” Landauer said after the dinner. “That gives it a certain sense of reality that you don’t have if it’s just an idea in your mind.”

July 12th, 2014