Oct 02, 2020

What happens when death is on the dinner menu?

Most people instinctively shy away from talking about death, keeping it to themselves for fear of opening up a painful, scary or conversation.

Death feels like something that looms menacingly over us all, but the reality is, from the second we are born, dying is one of the few things we can count on. 

Aiming to take away some of the intimidation, fear and scariness that death holds for some, Death Over Dinner has launched as a non-threatening, casual way to breach the subject with those you love. 

“The Death Over Dinner concept was founded by Michael Hebb and Angel Grant in America,” Said Karen Bolger, Community Development Officer at Calvary Health Care Bethlehem.

“Michael Hebb describes himself as a ‘food provocateur’, which means that he uses food and conversation to promote social change and social action. He has picked a lot of taboo topics and then uses the concept of sitting down at a dinner table to unpack those. The Death Over Dinner idea is one of the ones that has really taken off.”

Karen Bolger, explains that she and her team at Bethlehem were so inspired by the Death Over Dinner concept that they began to put together their own community session. 

“Bethlehem is a palliative care and progressive neurology public hospital in Melbourne, so we specialise in incurable illness and helping people to live life for as fully and as long as they can. We see a lot of people who are facing the end of their life, and some people are well prepared for that, other people are not. 

“I bumped into the Death Over Dinner idea at the palliative care conference in 2017 and they gave us an experience of what it is, sitting down and talking with your nearest and dearest about questions relating to end of life. Ever since then we thought this would be a really great thing for us to be able to offer to our patients and also the broader community.” 

After being inspired by the Death Over Dinner session, Karen and the team at Bethlehem began planning their own community session. Originally scheduled for April of this year, the Bethlehem team got a small council grant and planned to hold a face to face dinner with members of the community, providing food, and running a full Death Over Dinner conversation. But then, coronavirus hit, and the plans had to change. 

Believing in the power and importance of the Death Over Dinner concept, they began exploring  how they could run the session online. 

“We’ve run five practice sessions with nearly 50 people, and now we’re ready to launch our public event. The purpose of our online session is really about creating space for people to think about their own wishes and preferences around end of life and to introduce them to the Death Over Dinner concept. We really hope people will learn about this way of having this conversation, and then they might actually go on to have their own conversations around their own dinner table or in their workplaces,” Karen said. 

“It really is about building the capacity of the community to have these discussions themselves.” 

Taking place on Saturday, October 10th, Bethlehem’s online Death Over Dinner webinar falls on World Hospice and World Palliative Care Day. 

With a group of up to 40 participants, Karen and the Bethlehem team will be running the session, recognising and acknowledging those who have passed, and opening up an honest dialogue about life and death. Participants will also receive a free copy of Michael Hebb’s Death Over Dinner book, and a $20 Woolworths voucher so they can buy some dinner supplies to host their own session at home. 

“We really hope that the people who attend this first public session will then go on to host their own Death Over Dinner event themselves for their own families. Part of what these conversations do is start to make death just a normal part of life. It’s a stage of life that we all face at some point, and we don’t have to be frightened of that,” she said. 

“If we talk about what’s important and we live a full and meaningful life up until death, then maybe death isn’t quite so scary.”

“By talking about what matters to us, we actually live a better life. We live a more meaningful life because we know certain things matter to us and that these are really important, and therefore we prioritise those things. So we live a life with less regret and we make time for the things that really matter. By talking about death and what really matters, we actually live more,” she said.  

“One of the questions we get people to think about is ‘what do you want to be remembered for?’ That’s a beautiful question because what kind of legacy or what kind of meaning do you want to leave behind you says a lot about the kind of life you want to live. 

Sometimes pausing to reflect on those kinds of things can help you realise, actually I’m not living the life I really want to be living, and maybe I should make a change while I can.” 

Death Over Dinner is, at its core, a method of opening up crucial and vulnerable conversations about life and death before a person reaches a crisis point. Discussing your own death, or the death of a loved one is never going to be the easiest conversation, but Death Over Dinner aims to smooth over some of the bumps and make the process easier and less scary. 

For more information about Death Over Dinner and the upcoming webinar, visit the Australian website at https://deathoverdinner.org.au/ 

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