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Let's Talk About Death Over Dinner

A recent Death over Dinner party in San Francisco. From left: Tim Ferriss, Laura Deming, Luke Nosek, Eric Weinstein, Mason Hartman, and Max Hodak.
Lesley McClurg/Capital Public Radio
A recent Death over Dinner party in San Francisco. From left: Tim Ferriss, Laura Deming, Luke Nosek, Eric Weinstein, Mason Hartman, and Max Hodak.

On a recent evening in San Francisco, five guests gather at the home of Eric Weinstein and his wife, Pia Malaney, for a tasty dinner of seared salmon and a deep discussion of a topic that many people might find unpalatable: death.

The gathering is part of an international movement called "Death Over Dinner." The goal is to talk about important end-of-life questions before it's too late. Since the Death Over Dinner project was founded two years ago, more than 70,000 people in over 20 countries have gathered to dine and discuss their views on a "good" death, and the issues that will matter to them in their senior years.

For Weinstein, the managing editor for the hedge fund Thiel Capital, it's the first time hosting such an event, though he's attended one in the past as a guest. He says that experience taught him that a conversation over food often makes it easier to broach difficult topics.

All of the invitees at Weinstein's house have some tie to Silicon Valley and the tech industry, but they happen to have never met each other in person before. As his guests fill their plates with salmon, black rice, mixed greens and Caprese salad, Weinstein opens the conversation.

"How many of us are motivated to think about death, at least recently, because of a particular loss that hit us incredibly hard?" he asks.

Luke Nosek, a co-founder of Paypal, shares the story of a close friend who was recently hospitalized. "It was scary for a while, imagining," he says. "This is someone who's not just a friend but who's collaborating with me on some very important work. And I thought, what happens if his work isn't done? There's no one to continue it."

Eventually, Nosek's friend recovered. But he says the experience made him reflect on what he would do if his own life were in question. When Weinstein asks the group what actions they would take if they only had 24 hours to live, Nosek answers first.

"I would try to give as many transformational gifts as possible," he says. "This might be things that I own. For most people, I think it would be some kind of teaching or some kind of experience that I've had that changed me."

Tim Ferriss, an entrepreneur and the author of the The Four-Hour Workweek, chimes in: "For the waking hours, I would just be calling people I had fallen out of touch with, or people that I was already close to, to tell them what I felt needed to be said before passing."

Pia Malaney, an accomplished economist who has made significant contributions to academia, says, "I have a friend of mine who was just diagnosed with breast cancer and she has a 9-year-old son, like me. I think it's very clear when you have a family what you would do with it. How do I set things up to be able to plan for them — to be able to ensure that they have a future?"

The conversation twists and turns for more than an hour. The group talks about losing parents, funeral norms across cultures, even the ethics of life extension.

These are exactly the types of discussions that Michael Hebb hoped would occur when he founded the Death Over Dinner movement in 2013.

In a TEDMED talk about the project, Hebb says he was inspired after coming across two startling statistics: The vast majority of American bankruptcies are related to medical expenses, especially those related to end-of-life care; and while 75 percent of Americans say they want to die at home, only 25 percent actually do. How we end our lives, he says in the talk, is the most important and costly conversation we aren't having.

For those who want to host a dinner, the project's website offers suggested reading for guests to peruse before they gather.

As to the question, why dinner?

"The dinner table is the most forgiving place for difficult conversation," the project's website notes. "The ritual of breaking bread creates warmth and connection, and puts us in touch with our humanity."

This story originally aired on Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. A version of it ran on Here & Now from NPR and WBUR.

Copyright 2015 CapRadio News

Lesley McClurg