What surprised me most was how much we all laughed.

Also surprising: how readily and easily people shared their thoughts, questions and fears about death and dying; and how at the end of the night, our guests were reluctant to leave.

This is how my friend Gail, vice present of consumer engagement for Remembering A Life, and I created our first successful Remembering A Life Death Dinner Party (yes first – we hope to do it again!).

Why a Death Dinner Party?

Most of us avoid conversations about death and dying: too uncomfortable. Too scary. Too hard.

In fact when I told a longtime friend I was planning a death dinner party her response was “oh yuck, why would you want to do that? Leave me out of it!” The why is this: fears and discomforts grow when left unexamined; the more able we are to have meaningful conversations about life, death and how we want to be remembered the more able we are to both live and die well.

What is a Death Dinner Party?

A death dinner party is like any other dinner party: it is a gathering of family, friends and acquaintances in a warm, relaxed and intimate atmosphere with the goal of sharing good food and good conversation. What makes a death dinner party different is that the good conversation purposefully revolves around the sharing of thoughts, experiences, questions and fears about death and dying.

Putting the Party Together

Gail and I each invited four guests to our death dinner to be held at Gail’s home. Who to invite was easy: curious people open to exploring new ideas that had already expressed interest and some degree of comfort in regards to talking about grief, loss, death and dying. Unfortunately one of the guests had to bow out at the last minute to attend a funeral. Our guests – eight women and one man - ranged in age from 30s to 70. We had hoped for a more even mix of men and women but that’s not how things worked out.

Via an email invitation, Gail and I requested that each guest bring a favorite dish to share. Our diverse menu included everything from Greek chicken and lemon rice to roasted cauliflower salad to chocolate truffles. We were delighted to find that the food was a great conversation starter before we even sat down to dinner. Questions regarding What did you make? What’s the story behind your food? And How did you make that? helped guests who had never before met get to know each other in a relaxed and easy way.

Getting the Conversation Started

Prior to the arrival of our guests, Gail and I put a list of questions in a jar to be pulled out and used as conversation starters when needed. The questions included:

  • Who are you remembering today?
  • How would you like to be remembered/celebrated/ memorialized?
  • What is a favorite funeral you’ve attended? The most meaningful funeral/service you’ve attended?
  • Have you ever been with an actively dying person/a person as they died? What did you take away or learn from that experience?
  • When you picture your end of life, how do you envision it to be?
  • How can we move from a death denying to a death positive society?
  • Have you ever had an after death experience or a visitation from a loved one who has died?
  • Where did you get your ideas about death and dying?
  • What does a good death mean to you?

Interestingly, our conversation starter questions were never needed; guests jumped right in and conversation flowed organically after Gail and I introduced the purpose and reason behind the death dinner. All feelings and opinions were welcomed which made for an easy sharing of a variety of thoughts and viewpoints. Some examples of what was discussed include:

K. said: I don’t want people to be sad at my funeral.
G.: I want people to be a little sad.
M.: Oh I want people to be sad if they feel sad about my passing.
J.: I don’t care what happens after I’m gone – people will feel what they feel.

J.: I’ve been exploring how present I can be in the dying process, the moment of transition. Meditation and reading and contemplation all help. I’d like to be aware as I pass from this life to the next.
L.: Don’t you think that’s rare – not only wanting to be aware but actually to be aware?
J.: Yes, but I see it as a great adventure that I’m up for.
M.: I think I’ve also been looking at being present – in the moment of dying, what will I experience mentally and emotionally? Or will I be beyond the mental and emotional – is that what it means to be truly aware?

LS.: My Dad fought death. My Mom was more accepting, more present – a kind of Eastern philosophy. It made me realize, I could fight and deny or accept and be present. I get to choose. I’m choosing ways now to learn how to be present.
M.: My Mom struggled to let go of control in the dying process and it made everything harder. I learned from her death to ask the question: “what do I need to let go of in this situation?”

K.: I want to be in a good place when I die – nothing unfinished. I want to learn to die well – have a good death.
E.: I think that answering how to do all that is to ask the question: “Why is this happening for me? Why is death happening for me?”
K.: We can ask that about anything in life, right? Ask what is the purpose of this experience? Even ask that about death?
J. (who works as an acupuncturist): I tell my clients who are grieving but don’t want to grieve what a gift grieving is: it means you felt connected to what was lost - that what or who was lost was important to you. Isn’t that what we want in life – for things to have meaning? For there to be connection?
M.: But each to his own – right? Maybe some people just don’t have it in them to think about death and dying. That is their journey – where they’re at – so no judgment.
J.: Yes I know – but we can also help each other prepare for the inevitability of death. That’s why I’m trying to prepare my kids for my death. Not that they want to think about that yet.

E.: I saw a story about some sort of after death or body process that reduces your bones after cremation to white stones that your loved ones can keep after you’re gone. I like this idea of maybe having my bones made into stones and then put into a garden somewhere.
L.: After a life celebration and memorial I’d like some sort of ‘green burial’ (in green burial the body is placed in a cloth shroud and buried without a casket).
G.: Yes, or there are also burials where the body is left to naturally decompose in a tree – it is a specific sort of cemetery that is licensed to do this – this is a very environmentally friendly option for burial. But I would still like there to be a life celebration, memorial of some sort. I find funerals and memorials very important for helping me process death and I want that for the people who care about me. I also need to see the body of the person who has died to really accept that someone has died - to me this is important so I’d like my loved ones to have that opportunity.

L.: I try to go to every funeral that I can to support those who have lost a loved one. I always learn something about the person who died that made them special - that makes me wish I had known them better. It helps me to keep in mind how important and special all people are.
K.: I have a friend who is terminally ill and dying and I want to be there for her now, and there for her and her family after she dies.
JB.: Yes. I think learning to be present to life and death - which is a part of life - is what being human is about. We learn until our last breathe and I think continue to learn wherever we go from here.

At Party's End

Our death dinner party lingered long after the two hours Gail and I had designated as time enough to share a meal and talk about grief, death and dying. We ended our time together with a group photo. Each participant was then given a goody bag of items that they might find helpful in continuing to explore the topics we discussed; the goody bag included a Remembering A Life Grief Journal, a Remembering A Life Memory Jar and Remembering a Life Journey Cards.

A few days after our death dinner one of the guests contacted me to let me know she had passed along the grief journal to a friend; the friend had expressed gratitude for the gift which finally provided an entry point for starting a difficult conversation about a loved one’s impending death.

Interested in hosting your own Remembering A Life Dinner Party? Use our simple how-to!

Learn More

Honoring a Life
Start the Conversation
What Does “Death Positive” Mean?
The Conversation of a Lifetime
How a Tiny Pack of Cards Helped My Kids to Know Me Better
From Death Denial to Death Acceptance