BY DANIEL GAITAN | email@example.com
Michael Hebb never expected a train ride to change his life — or the lives of countless men and women across the globe.
While on a train traveling from Portland to Seattle in 2012, Hebb spoke with two doctors in a dining car about the state of the American health care system. That’s where he learned a troubling statistic: nearly 75 percent of Americans want to die at home, yet only 25 percent of them do.
He called that statistic “a slap to the face” and “shocking.”
Right then and there, Hebb, a restaurateur and entrepreneur, decided to devote his life to making talk about death less taboo by launching a “patient-led revolution at the dinner table.”
“As the train rolled along, this outrage sparked a memory,” Hebb told an audience at a Washington, D.C., TEDMED talk five years ago.
Hebb knew the toll death often demands. When he was 12 years old, his father died in a nursing home.
He suffered from complications associated with Alzheimer’s disease, a matter he said was rarely discussed in the Hebb household.
“We didn’t know how to talk about death and illness in my family, so denial was often the route we chose,” Hebb said. “To this day not spending more time with my father during my final years is one of the only major regrets I have in my life.”
Throughout his 17-minute “talk,” Hebb outlined the ambitious mission of his then-fledgling new national campaign, Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death.
The dinner table, according to Hebb, is the perfect place to initiate such conversations.
Fast Forward 5 Years Later
Hebb’s movement has inspired tens of thousands of people across the globe to contemplate what it means to be human and express their future health care wishes — sometimes with complete strangers.
Hosting a dinner begins at deathoverdinner.com.
After answering several basic questions about the guests (are they parents, friends, co-workers or strangers?) and hopes for the dinner (to prepare for the end of life, for philosophical conversations), the host receives a personalized email with invitation language for the guests. The host also receives “homework,” post-dinner tips and conversation prompts.
“I’m thrilled,” Hebb told Life Matters Media about his success. “It’s overwhelming.”
Hebb said he’s noticed “less resistance” to frank conversation about death over the last few years. Still, he said, America has a long, long way to go.
“I think that we’re still at the very, very beginning of changing our culture around not just death consciousness but all of the conversations that we repress,” he said. “The culture’s just beginning to face the things that we’ve hidden. I think especially in the United States we’re conflict averse. The combination of repression and conflict aversion leads us to have unexamined lives.”
When people make their future care wishes known, they’re more likely to die on their own terms, he said.
Starting the Conversation
Hebb, 42, said he believes people are finally acknowledging that avoiding such conversations “makes us very sick.”
He also credits that nation’s aging baby boomer population and healthy skepticism of cultural norms from Millenials and Gen Xers with making talk about death less taboo.
“I think there’s some great things happening and there’s still some exciting work to be done,” he said. “I certainly have the life experience of Gen X, but I tend to [feel] spiritually more aligned with Millenials and their interest in looking under every stone and demanding transparency.”
He spent much of 2018 promoting his new book, Let’s Talk About Death – Over Dinner. It offers stories and reflection from his experiences breaking bed while talking death.
“There was high demand for the book from people who had experienced a death dinner,” Hebb said. “I hadn’t planned on a book. It was because of the insistence of people who had the experience and wanted to have more resources and wanted more stories told.”
When questioned about the impact the “Death over Dinner” movement had on his life, Hebb replied: “I needed to have these conversations.”
“I don’t like being in a world where people don’t know themselves or are not willing to say something vulnerable,” Hebb said. “I’ve learned about human connection. Human connection is the most important ingredient in longevity and living a meaningful life. We’re social creatures.”
Although he “uses his phone way to much” and “binge watches shows more than I should,” Hebb said the movement “has shown him some of the secrets of human connection.”
“People are more excited about getting up in the morning when they have a sense of human connection,” he added. “It’s not quantity, it’s quality.”