“Let’s have dinner and talk about death,” reads the invitation email, part of a kit to help you host your own “death dinner.” The idea is simple, if unusual: invite family or friends to a meal in order to discuss the end of life. There’s even a beautifully designed website from the University of Washington that helps you decide on a guest list, plan the evening, and find suitable quotes from famous writers and experts.
Such “death dinners” are a growing trend, according to media reports, and so too are “death cafés” which are similar but typically open to the public. As a pastor for over forty years, I know the benefits of talking candidly about death and dying. Often, such an exchange can deepen relationships and bring great comfort. In fact, I believe it’s one of the most important things any of us can do.
So if you’re considering opening up such a conversation – whether over a meal, during a hike out in nature, or on a long road trip – I encourage you to do so. There’s only one thing to avoid: squandering the opportunity by shying away from the big questions of life and death. It’s unfortunate that news articles about the “death dinner” phenomenon often focus on secondary matters: finances, burial vs. cremation, what music to play and where to scatter ashes. Such things of course need to be considered in their proper place. But by focusing only on them, we will miss what’s truly important: the reality of eternity.
None of us knows for certain when our time will come, but we can prepare ourselves. When my friend Karl Keiderling, a craftsman, needed major heart surgery, he expected to return home, but he didn’t take it for granted. The day before he went into the hospital, he saw to it that all his tools were sharp, “for when I come back.” A man of few words, he also got up in church and said that he had no grudges against anybody. He asked for forgiveness if he had hurt anyone. His wife Clare remembers:
Karl had just read in his Bible that “God sees every sparrow fall,” so he put his whole life into God’s hands. I was temporarily wheelchair-bound and worried how we would cope after the surgery when we would both need a full-time caregiver. Karl told me not to worry about a thing. “God has cared for us up till now, and everything will be okay.” One thing he especially laid on my heart was, “Now that you can’t rush around, you have time for others. Remember to take time to show love.”
He told our daughter, “I want to thank you and Mom in advance for standing by me in the hospital. There may be a time when I can’t talk to you, but sing to me and talk to me anyway, and I will thank you in my heart.” That’s what we did, and we are so glad for that, since he never spoke to us again. He died after the surgery.
Like Clare, we must each be prepared to say goodbye to a spouse or friends who might die before we do. This is crucial for our road ahead. God gives us different positions in the battle for his victory. Some of us may be needed as fighters in another world while others will have to stay on this earth a little longer. I’ve lost countless close friends, fellow pastors, and both my parents. Each time, it hits me a little harder: it could be me next. But each time, the peace I sense at their passing reminds me of the reward that awaits me, too, if I live out my last days rightly.
In “Terminus,” Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks of death as an ocean journey, a picture used by countless other writers as well.
As the bird trims her to the gale,
I trim myself to the storm of time,
I man the rudder, reef the sail,
Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime:
“Lowly faithful, banish fear,
Right onward drive unharmed;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed.”
In encouraging others to banish fear, we may well find greater peace ourselves – and when the time comes, experience such a charmed voyage to our next port of call.
Johann Christoph Arnold is the author of Rich in Years: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life (2013), from which this article was adapted.
Would you host a “death dinner”? Have you ever talked about the end of life with those nearest to you? Share your thoughts on Arnold’s article.