Death over Dinner

Hanno Burmester
Sep 17, 2017 · 5 min read

How I hosted an evening on death and dying

When has death entered your life?

How do you want to be buried?

How do you want to die?

What is your reaction when you read these questions? Would your impulse be to discuss them over dinner, with a group of people you don’t know?

In the morning of September 6, I told my partner that that was exactly my plan for the evening: co-host eight guests, cook for them, and talk about death and dying over dinner. He dryly replied “Guten Appetit” — one of the more gentle reactions I received when telling people about this little experiment. Other friends and colleagues did not even try wiping a rather ghastly expression off their face.

Preparation: Why talk about death — in a workspace!?

My friend and colleague Joana Breidenbach had approached me with the idea to host a dinner on death — and I instantly said yes (find her take on the evening here). We are both interested in how inner and outer transformation correlate. And know from our own life experience that death has a lot to offer for a fuller life. Sharing perspectives on and experiences with death and dying in a broader group of people seemed like a promising conversation to us.

The CoCreation Loft, where my firm unlearn is based, offered the perfect setting for our undertaking. In our Loft, we consciously hold the space for the spiritual and metaphysical dimensions of life. Not only because they are an important part of our everyday, but, more importantly, because not including them would create a workspace that limits width of potential and depth of experience. The network around the Loft believes that creating meaningful things with the instruments of the professional is impossible without permanent grounding in what lies beyond our “functional” selves (and the self in general, but that requires another blogpost).

Entrée: Toasting to the Dead

After short hours of setting the setting for the evening — buying wine, chopping, cooking — we welcomed eight friends and colleagues. I had decided to not lean in too much, to be more of a host than facilitator, trusting that the nature of the topic and the few lead questions we had prepared would focus us enough to have a mindful whole table discussion.

We started off by going around the table, with every participant toasting to one dead person. Joana and I had figured this would be quick — and ended up spending around one hour with this first round. One guest spoke about the suicide of his mother, and the early death of his father. Another remembered a classmate who had killed herself in her teens. Some shared stories of their beloved grandparents, while others talked about everyday acquaintances whose parting had left a bigger hole than expected.

This round touched me deeply. I marveled at how different the presence and intensity of death is in our individual lives. Some of our guests are mostly untouched by death, and know it as concept rather than experience. Others’ lives are deeply coined by death, or the threat of it.

Main course: Death as daily companion?

As I understood, this goes not only for actual losses, but — probably more significantly — the sense of potential loss in everyday life. In our group, it became very clear that some think about and feel death as an everyday presence since their early childhood. Others never think about it. To some, death is a close companion, while he is a total stranger to others.

Which made me wonder: what makes some of us be intuitively aware of the fragility of everything? What makes some sense that death accompanies the perception of everyday reality — while others have no such sense at all? And how do these different forms of being in and with life (and death) coin the way we lead our lives?

Spiritual experiences — and laughter

Over the main course, we dived more deeply into the topic. Metaphysical experiences — moments when there was intuitive (and correct) awning that people close to us died or will die; the promise death as a potential option holds for some; the driver death as a presence can be for leading a purpose- and meaningful life.

And we laughed, a lot actually. Sometimes to not go to a deeper level (which I regret), sometimes because of the bizarre sides the impermanence of life can hold.

The cleared dinner table

After dessert: in awe, and curious to go deeper

I was awed by the multi-facetedness of how our guests experience death — and how colorful and full of life our stories during this night were.

At the same time, I am curious to experience another Death over Dinner, one where we go deeper. In retrospective, I feel that our hesitation to more actively facilitate the evening made it easy for everyone to not go where uncertainty lies, and to stay in the realms of the anecdotal or an easy quip.

So I’ll invite Joana to host another night with me, one where we’ll nudge ourselves and our guests into more uncertain situations, ones that hopefully bear the potential to unlock levels that more radically go beyond the conversational.

Thanks to our seven guests, who shared this experiment with us!

Death over Dinner is a format the design firm IDEO came up with. They host a beautifully simple homepage where you can pre-arrange your own event.

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