Sharon S. Richardson Community Hospice - Sheboygan, WI

Death Over Dinner Helps Get Important Conversation Started

Friends from Sheobygan County's Leadership Institute gather for dinner and conversation at the Sharon S. Richardson Community Hospice center

My new friends from the Sheboygan County Chamber’s Leadership Institute agreed to try something different for our small group project.  Each month, the Leadership Institute takes us on an educational journey to learn about various industries in the county and to stretch our thinking on community issues.  Recognizing that I was part of a dynamic group of people who are eager to learn, explore, and grow as individuals, I asked them to go way outside their comfort zones with me.  For our group project, I proposed a Death Over Dinner event to engage a random group of people to talk about death and dying.  Anxious Andrew, Crazy Carmen, Stormin’ Steve, and Easy-going Elaine obliged.  


The Death Over Dinner initiative stared in Seattle, Washington in 2013.  Michael Hebb, a Masters of Communication in Digital Media (MCDM) Teaching Fellow from the University of Washington, recognized that what individuals want for end- of- life care is “the most important and costly conversation” Americans aren’t having. 


It’s important because it affects each and every one of us.  Not planning for it costs us all because life-prolonging and life-sustaining measures are expensive, not guaranteed to work, and nothing can stop the inevitable.  Far too often, life or death decisions are being made by family members in a crisis situation.  If they don’t know what you want, the stress can be overwhelming, and a disagreement can tear a family apart.


The Death Over Dinner website gives you tools to use for facilitating a conversation around death and dying.  You pick the audience (friends, family, or random group), and you choose from a selection of “homework”—an excerpt to read, a YouTube clip to watch, and an audio clip.  You can choose a theme for all of these or a mix. Everyone reviews the materials before dinner and then talks about their thoughts, experiences, and wishes over the meal.  


For our dinner, we read a dialogue from Charlotte’s Web, watched a TED Talk about the future of anti-aging pharmaceuticals, and listened to a talk about how we have removed ourselves, and especially our children, from the reality of death.  Each one of my friends brought a guest.  We met for dinner at Sharon S. Richardson Community Hospice.  The evening started with each of us raising a glass to the memory of someone we love who has passed.  This immediately drew us in intimately.  We began to discuss the materials we had reviewed and then the conversation led to the importance of Advanced Directives, the value of hospice, and ultimately to the realization our children, spouses, and parents probably have no idea what we would want them to do if we were unable to speak for ourselves.  Everyone left feeling a little closer to the others in the group and much more confident in approaching the topic of death with their families.  


If you would like to try a Death Over Dinner, visit www.deathoverdinner.org, or contact me at 920.467.7940 and I’d be happy to host one for you. 

Angelia Neumann is the director of development and communications for the Sharon S. Richardson Community Hospice.