November 08, 2018


Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner): An Invitation and Guide to Life’s Most Important Conversation. By Michael Hebb. Da Capo. $26.

     Sincere to the point of being simplistic, well-meaning to the point of being naïve, Michael Hebb’s Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner) is an anecdote-packed attempt to enliven (pun intended) the American avoidance of direct discussion of death – one’s own and that of others. It is in part an advocacy book for Hebb’s own businesses: he is the founder of an organization called Death Over Dinner and of the New Age-y sounding “Convivium, a creative agency that specializes in the ability to shift culture through the use of thoughtful food-and-discourse-based gatherings.” Not surprisingly, Hebb is from Seattle, where descriptions of this sort are taken very seriously indeed.

     In the United States, however, Hebb argues, we tend not to take death seriously – or rather, we take it so seriously that we practice avoidance of the topic. That means we speak of people “passing” rather than dying or say they “went to heaven” or “exited this life” – or any one of a variety of other euphemisms. So the first thing we need to do is use the words “death” and “dying” so we can confront their inevitability.

     So far, so good. But this is difficult for Americans and many other Westerners because, as one of the many counselors and educators quoted by Hebb states, “Western medicine tends to think it can beat death.” Really? Yes, says Hebb, and this means “it’s as if we’re heroes in an action film, squaring off with an evil foe, and everyone knows the good guy wins in the end. …If it’s us versus death, we will come out victorious.”

     To say this is an oversimplification is to understate. On one level, it rings true, as do many of Hebb’s comments. But on another, it ignores deep-seated cultural imperatives and foundations that cannot simply be swept away with a nice dinner. The counselor whom Hebb quotes grew up in Hong Kong, and Asian cultures have multi-thousand-year histories of ancestor worship, respect for elders, family structures geared to protect the elderly and usher them gently out of life, and much more. Although some of those cultural elements have become a bit faded recently, the point is that they are deep-seated and rooted in hundreds of generations of practice. Contrasting them with American culture, and speaking as if action movies are somehow the cultural imperative for American medicine, is barely to skim the surface of the difficulties underlying “the American way of death” – to uote the title of Jessica Mitford’s famous 1963 study of funeral-industry abuses.

     Hebb never mentions Mitford, but he does briefly discuss Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whose insights into death and dying are now classic. In fact, Hebb briefly discusses a great many death-related things: Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner) jumps around quite a bit, mentioning planning for our own death, how we are affected when people we know die, how our own death may affect others, how different cultures handle death, and much more. There are numerous topics to which he gives short shrift, bringing them up and then dropping them just as they become intriguing. One is “death shaming,” of which Hebb writes, “None of us can say until we get there how we will feel as we stare down our own death, and there are no ‘shoulds.’ …Shame drips into every part of our lives, and death has some of the richest waters for it to dissolve [in].” But there is little more than this on the topic; indeed, there is little enough on any topic here (or subtopic, given that death is the overall subject). Hebb moves quickly from methods of giving comfort to examples of religious and nonreligious  thoughts of and responses to death; he discusses the death-with-dignity movement and what a “good death” looks like to various people; he even attempts, far too briefly, to explain reactions  when someone commits suicide (not within a death-with-dignity setting). Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner) is weakest when the topics are most intense: Hebb’s few pages on the death of a child cannot help being heart-wrenching for any parent, but they are far too surface-level to offer structure, guidance or any sort of closure.

     What is valuable in Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner) is simply its basic suggestion that death is as good a dinner topic as anything else – that people can and should (yes, a “should”) get together, on their own if not through one of Hebb’s businesses, to talk about their feelings regarding death, their experiences of it, their reactions to others’ deaths, and their anticipation of their own. And then – well, what? Hebb several times comments that the death-dinner discussion is meaningful to participants, providing insight and comfort with the topic. But he never quite explains what people can or should (another “should”) do after the dinner. Have another one? Have them regularly? Have them whenever someone close to the participants dies? Have some other sort of “refresher course” in death and dying? The last two sentences of Hebb’s book are, “Death walks with us through our entire life. The best thing I can suggest is that we all get better acquainted with our constant companion.” That is at best a very partial and rather wan conclusion. Readers may find other approaches to death and dying far more congenial than this: perhaps the writings of Kübler-Ross, perhaps the portrayal of Death by Terry Pratchett in his Discworld novels, perhaps reading (hopefully re-reading) Shakespeare’s gloomily poetic lines about “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” All these examples offer more insight than is to be found in Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner). But Hebb does deserve credit for suggesting a venue where some level of conversation about death and dying can potentially take place.

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