death over dinner
Discussion of death brings life new meaning for "death cafe" attendees
Written by Alexa Rixon, Staff Writer
Imagine your own death as a one-act play. Think about the people and things that would surround you. How old are you and where would you be?
This is just one exercise students of the Death and Dying course at DePaul University are assigned to contemplate. Taught by Bioethics Professor Craig Klugman, he created the university’s first death and dying elective in 2015 in the health sciences department. While studying the end of life, Klugman realized how rare it is for people to talk about issues surrounding death, particularly one’s own.
“College is a time when people are really starting to get a sense of their identity, who they want to be in their life,” Klugman said. “Thinking about death is not only a part of that but an important part of that.”
Death and dying courses have been growing in higher education for the past few decades, but the conversation about death is becoming more prevalent in other settings as well. The evidence includes events and workshops such as “death cafés” where people discuss death over beverages and “death over dinners” where people discuss end-of-life matters over a meal.
Death rituals, including taboos and customs, vary greatly by culture, especially within religion and ethnic background.
Ted Smith, a Northwestern University research administrator, hosted his first death cafe in Chicago in March 2017. He traced changes in attitudes about death in the Western world, using the Victorian era as a contrasting example to today.
“You’d have nine kids and expect five of them to die…if the family could afford it you’d pose the corpse with the family and have a picture,” Smith said. “Death was very much a part of life, it was just this piece that was constantly interacted with.”
Technological advances in medicine, such as the artificial kidney and iron lung, invented in the 1950s, allowed even seriously ill people to delay death.
In most hospitals, Klugman observed that it became an imperative to use any relevant and available technology. He recently noticed big investments by companies such as Google’s Calico, a research and development company that seeks to understand biology that controls lifespan. The other side to the perspective of death being curable, something to be conquered, is that we don’t want to talk about death, according to Klugman.
With popular media seemingly saturated with violence, it is the reality of death that is seldom discussed on a personal level. Constant portrayals of it through the grandiose lens of cinema can be seen as an extension of our culture’s evasion of death. Klugman notes that vampire and zombie films had popularity in the 50s, reflecting society’s yearning idea that death does not have to be the end of life.
Teaching undergraduates a course in health communications, Professor Elisa Foster at DePaul University, said her unit on social support and end of life decision-making in hospice makes her students go universally quiet. It’s clear to her it’s not something they want to think about. Many conversations on death are forced due to need.
“We don’t have those conversations at a time where you know there’s no emergency need to make a decision or if there hasn’t been a crisis we tend to put it off,” she said.
Foster sees benefits in having the dialogue well in advance of there being a crisis through discussing what hopes, wishes and preferences one has for their end of life which can help guide decision-making during those last days or hours.
One way to open the conversation is filing documentation such as advanced directives. These are forms that help articulate people’s wishes if one were to have a life-limiting illness. People can start legally filing at 18 years old which is when Klugman encourages people to make their first plan.
Pam Nyberg, who attended Smith’s death café, shared her family’s experience of opening up the difficult conversation on end-of-life planning.
“You’re going to thank me someday when you find yourself in a situation where you need to make decisions for me,” said Nyberg, quoting her grandmother. “My mom didn’t appreciate it at the time, but she told me later that it was really helpful because at least she knew she was carrying forth her mom’s wishes, and I think it really reinforced the importance of it with my family.”
The conversation isn’t only beneficial for the deceased to have their wishes honored, it can also help the family members carrying out the decisions not feel like they’re playing God, adds Elizabeth Harding, a grieving counselor who also worked as a hospice chaplain.
Having purposeful spaces to talk about death can allow for stories, as well as educational information, to be shared and spread. Death education can be adjusted to be appropriate for different ages.
Harding started the educational process with her 3-year-old son after his grandfather died. She read him books and talked about what death means, helping him understand that death is a natural part of living.
“He doesn’t quite understand it fully but he understands it at his developmental level,” she said. “Kids experience death at any age, it’s always going to be beneficial to have open and honest communication about it.”
Having survived two heart transplants, professional speaker Bill Coon supports any educational material being made accessible for the public on any topic. However, he focuses on empathizing with the intimacy of conversations surrounding death, that it shouldn’t be forced on anyone. Bearing no right or wrong, it is a matter of one’s comfortability.
Despite the benefits of taking some time to look ahead, it only works if the person is willing.
Klugman is glad his class is an elective, as the students who sign up are curious and open to the conversation. If it were required it wouldn’t work – there would be resistance. It’s important for the class to be a dialogue which it is now, opposed to a one-way experience from instructor to student.
“There’s a motto we have in our class, which is we study dying so we know how to live,” Klugman said. “And I think that’s what spending time thinking about death gives you, the opportunity to really pinpoint what’s most important to you.”
All illustrations by Alson Chiu. Contact Alson by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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