From California to Colorado, Kentucky to Boston

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The Nation Resolves to Talk About Death in the New Year during Dinner Series

Death as dinner conversation? You bet. For a second consecutive year The Conversation Project teamed up with Death Over Dinner to launch a nationwide movement to encourage Americans to throw the most important dinner parties they’ll ever have.

Both organizations believe that conversations about end-of-life care shouldn’t start with doctors, insurance agents, or within intensive care units when people are facing life-threatening situations; they should start with family and friends while breaking bread.

The challenge was accepted, and during the week of Jan. 1 to 7 more than 1,000 dinners were held throughout the US, and the campaign drove more than 23,000 people to the organizations’ websites where they registered to host dinners and downloaded The Conversation Project’s Starter Kit.

Still haven’t hosted your own dinner? Here’s some food for thought and an inside peek into four dinners that took place across the country so you can see for yourself the intimacy, humor, and down-to-earth reality that occurs when friends and family, and in some instances complete strangers, get together to discuss their own deaths.

Cooking Up a Conversation in California

The Conversation Project’s West Coast partner and advisor, Ira Byock, MD, chief medical officer of the Providence Institute for Human Caring, and his wife Yvonne Corbeil opened their home in Los Angeles to a diverse group of dinner guests to discuss what no one wants to talk about – planning for our dying days.

In true Hollywood fashion, the couple’s star-studded guest list included Academy Award-winning director and Emmy Award-winning actress Christine Lahti (“Chicago Hope,” “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”); director/producer Thomas Schlamme (“The West  Wing,” “Manhattan”); the entertainer, author and motivational speaker Tom Sullivan; and Bob Beitcher, president and CEO of the Motion Picture & Television Fund.

Lahti and Schlamme, who are married to each other, said they have both experienced the death of one or both parents. “We all know that death is as inevitable as birth,” said Lahti. “But death is never talked about and is such an elephant in the room. There is such denial about it.”

Lahti and Schlamme said they chose to participate in Death over Dinner because they want to be part of building a grassroots movement to stimulate conversations about death. “Eventually, that’s the way culture changes,” Schlamme said. “It changes when a group of people decide to talk about death and say that it’s not as frightening as we thought.”

Dr. Byock said it was a delicious evening in all respects. The dinner was catered by Chez Mélange in Redondo Beach, which is co-owned by Michael Franks, a supporter of the Death over Dinner movement. Death “is something no one really wants to discuss,” Franks noted. “But I think it’s very interesting to be able to sit down at a table and discuss in a relevant way.”

The dinner table discussion was personal and enjoyable. “We shared perspectives and stories from our lives as sons and daughters, spouses and parents,” said Dr. Byock. “Some moments were deadly serious, others touchingly funny. Oh, and the food was great!”

Dr. Byock, who is author of “The Best Care Possible,” urges individuals to complete advance directives, documents that spell out the specifics of the kind of medical care they want when they are dying. The directive allows people to express their wishes so that their preferences for care will be known and honored.

Boulder Gets Bold about End-of-life Care

Boulder resident Connie Holden, RN, MSN, the leader of Boulder’s Conversation Project chapter, set her table to dine and discuss death for a party of ten. The attendees were personal friends from a broad range of professions, backgrounds, and interests.

Holden’s personal experience with parents and grandparents, as well as a four-decade-long career as a bedside nurse, is what gives her an appreciation for the complexities of end-of-life decision-making. Holden recently retired from Boulder Community Hospital   where she served as the Executive Director of Hospice of Boulder County, and she now works to spread The Conversation Project’s mission widely throughout Boulder.

Holden said that, while living wills are helpful, those she worked with often found it easier to make difficult decisions if they had also talked with their loved ones about their wishes.

She gave the example of a man who struggled with a decision not to provide his elderly mother with a feeding tube after a stroke. Though her living will specified no feeding tubes, she said, he kept saying he wished he had heard her say it.

“Maybe all of this is not about the documents we fill out,” she said. “It’s about the conversations we have with our family members.”

Guests discussed the gray areas that may not be covered by a living will, using personal experiences as an example. Guest Kathy Harberg talked about her father, who at the age of 95 had dementia and came down with pneumonia. Though he had a “do not resuscitate” order, she said, she and her siblings still needed to decide whether he should receive antibiotics.

For more on Boulder’s Death Dinner including guest’s reactions, read the full story and watch the video featured in the Daily Camera.

Dining and Discussing Death in Kentucky

Meanwhile, a few states over in Kentucky, instead of quips about the weather or current events, dinner conversation between 15 complete strangers in a local restaurant started with “So, have you had any experiences with death?”

Kentucky’s Death Over Dinner event was hosted by Justin Magnuson, a 38-year-old massage therapist from Germantown. Magunson became interested in end-of-life care and the work of national nonprofit, The Conversation Project, after serving as his grandmother’s health surrogate and volunteering for a local hospice organization. This emphasized for him the importance of end-of-life conversations and the difficulty many people have with discussing their own death. He hosted the event to help spread The Conversation Project’s work and engage various sectors of the community ultimately improving both the participants’ lives and the healthcare system.

The event definitely reached one dinner guest and chaplain the Rev. Georgine Buckwalter, who  commented on the importance of having these conversations early and often rather than in “the 11th hour, in the hallway at Baptist (Hospital) East,” as she put it. “Discussions about death, especially with loved ones, are a delicate dance,” Buckwalter said during the dinner.

Guests were old and young, in varied lines of work — among them, university faculty, clergy, psychologists and a puppeteer — but all were “stakeholders” in the topic of death who could bring the conversation to other people, Magnuson said.

“Overall the feedback from the dinner guests was very positive,” said Magnuson. “I’ve already been contacted about participating in another dinner and presenting The Conversation Project at a local congregation.”

For more details about Kentucky’s event, read the coverage featured in the Courier-Journal.

Breaking Bread and Taboos in Boston

Wrapping up the week of dinners, The Conversation Project’s own Ellen Goodman was joined by Dr. Atul Gawande, surgeon, author of Being Mortal; public health researcher Nancy Frates, mother of the inspiration behind the Ice Bucket Challenge; Maureen Bisognano, president and CEO at the Institute of Healthcare Improvement; Paul Grogan, president and CEO of the Boston Foundation; Dr. Lachlan Forrow, Director of care and Ethics and Palliative Care Programs and Beth Israel Hospital; and many others, at Rialto restaurant in Boston.

The evening began with each dinner guest lighting a candle as they said the name of a departed loved one and sharing a story or character trait that they still carry in their hearts. One guest introduced her grandfather, Michael, who was an Italian immigrant. “I am inspired by his courage–to leave behind everything he knew for the sake of a better future for his family,” said Rosemary Lloyd, director of faith based initiatives at The Conversation Project. Others talked about qualities like honesty and generosity, leadership and kindness, leading Nancy Frates to note that we aren’t just taking about death, we are talking about life and what makes it worth living.

The conversation and wine flowed alongside Rialto Chef Jody Adams’ cream-of-mushroom soup a recipe donated to the nonprofit’s recent project and ecookbook, The Endless Table. The ecookbook is a collection of recipes and stories from the country’s leading chefs remembering loved one’s lost to help inspire families to have “THE” conversation about end-of-life care.

The mushroom soup honors Adams’ father. Toward the end of his life, although his appetite had waned, he still loved food, so the chef did what she knows best, and turned to the stove. She cooked her heart out, ferrying bowls of soup from her parents’ kitchen to the living room where his bed was arranged. The mushroom soup was his favorite.

This touching story among many others was shared around the table. Goodman created The Conversation Project after having been her mother’s caregiver and health care decision-maker for several years.  If Goodman had conversations with her mother before dementia impaired her ability to share her desires, she might have felt more comforted about the choices she faced, she says.

Goodman knows her story is not unique. The goal of The Conversation Project is to help loved ones die in the way they would choose, honoring their wishes in death the same way we do in life – with dignity, respect, and deep compassion.

Ellen Goodman and Dr. Atul Gawande teamed up before the dinner to speak on WBUR’s Radio Boston to express the importance of having this conversation with your loved ones.

Let’s have dinner and talk about death

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The Baltimore Sun-  It isn’t what she imagined for what Baby Boomers like to call “a post-career career.” But Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman finds herself talking to people about dying. Specifically, about dying the way they want to die.

She began The Conversation Project after her own mother’s death at 92. They had never had this conversation and, with her mother suffering from dementia, they couldn’t have it. She found herself making difficult decisions about her mother’s care without any idea what her mother might have wanted.

“We had talked about everything but this one thing,” said Ms. Goodman, “and that is how she wanted to live at the end of her life.

“I never want to leave the people I love that uneasy and bewildered about my own wishes,” said the former Boston Globe writer.

From today through Jan. 7, The Conversation Project, in cooperation with Death Over Dinner, which also encourages these conversations, is urging people to pick an evening soon to “fill their tables with comfort food, family and friends and start talking about how they want to live the last days of their lives.”

Read the full article here.

Chew on this: death & dinner

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U-T San Diego- Pass the peas and the awkward silences, please.

On the menu the first week of 2015 for thousands of American families is the tricky — some would say distasteful — topic of end-of-life care.

A national campaign to break bread and cultural taboos is urging people to put on the table their wishes for living out their final days with so-called Death Over Dinner gatherings from today through Jan. 7.

In between finalizing their guest lists and entrée recipes, dinner hosts can download a Conversational Starter Kit from to help uncork such food-for-thought nuggets as: Do you want to live as long as possible, no matter what, or is quality of life more important than quantity? Where do you want to receive end-of-life care, at home, at a nursing facility or a hospital? And what kinds of aggressive treatment would you want, or not want, such as resuscitation if your heart stops, breathing machines or feeding tubes?

More often than not, experts say, families confront these questions when it’s too late, not in the comfort of their homes, but in hospital emergency rooms, ICUs and even courtrooms.

Read the full article here.

‘Death over dinner’ event in Boulder encourages end-of-life decision conversations

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The Daily Camera-  Connie Holden hosted a dinner party Sunday in Boulder to encourage her friends to talk about death.

Holden, the co-founder of Boulder County’s chapter of the Conversation Project, has worked as a nurse, an ethics consultant who helped families with end of life decisions and the director of Hospice of Boulder County.

The Conversation Project in Boulder County started in 2013 and is based on the work of “Boston Globe” columnist Ellen Goodman.

“One of the points that Ellen Goodman makes is that these are conversations people should be having around the kitchen table, not at the bedside in the intensive care unit,” Holden said.

Nationally, the Conversation Project encouraged chapters to host “death over dinner” events this week to increase awareness about the project. At Holden’s dinner in Boulder, the 10 people who attended talked about loved ones they lost and shared their thoughts on end-of-life decisions

Read the full article here.


Death over Breakfast

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President of Teak Media, Jackie Herskovitz Russell, wrote an inspiring blog post about having “the conversation” with her family the morning after Thanksgiving.

It started with the requisite joke made by my Dad. “Bury me at Bloomingdale’s,” he said. “That way I know my daughters will visit me.”

Thanks for making it convenient for us, Dad! We appreciate your consideration.

If only end of life planning was that easy. But because it’s not, and there are many details to be worked out and agreed upon while all parties involved are still alive and lucid, my family took the morning after Thanksgiving to “have the conversation.”

Read the full blog post on the Teak website here. 

Death Over Dinner Press Release

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Top Chefs Help Break Bread & Taboos

Dining and Discussing Death in the New Year 

Seven Days, Two Organizations and One Conversation: A Movement to Encourage Meaningful Conversations about End-of-Life Care. Jan. 1-7

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. & SEATTLE, Wash. | Death as dinner conversation? You bet. Death Over Dinner and The Conversation Project are teaming up for a second consecutive year to launch a nationwide movement to encourage Americans to throw the most important dinner parties they’ll ever have.

The two likeminded public engagement campaigns, both of which educate people on the value of making decisions about their wishes for end-of-life care and expressing them to their loved ones, are inspiring a series of uplifting and interactive dinners to transform the seemingly difficult conversation about death into an intimate, shared experience.

During the week of Jan. 1 – 7, 2015 Seven Days, Two Organizations and One Conversation (#721) will encourage Americans to pick a date on which to fill their tables with comfort food, family, and friends and start talking about how they want to live the last days of their lives.

Both organizations believe that conversations about end-of-life care shouldn’t start with doctors, insurance agents, or in intensive care units when people are overwhelmed; they should start with family and friends while breaking bread. #721 provides the tools and tips to get the conversation started. Dinner party hosts choose the guests and the menu and let the wine and conversations flow.

To whet the appetite for the conversation, this year’s side dish is an ecookbook, “The Endless Table,” recipes from departed loved ones, available for download just in time for the holidays. Famous foodies like Tom Colicchio, Ina Garten, Ben Ford, Jasper White, Jody Adams, José Andrés, Roger Berkowitz, Michel Nischan and many more have donated recipes in honor of loved ones, along with stories about why the dish they chose is personally meaningful. The book will be available January 2015 for a nominal donation of $15, which will benefit both public engagement campaigns, The Conversation Project and Death Over Dinner.

“Memories and menus are bound together in our emotional makeup — whether it’s the hot dog at Fenway Park or the iconic turkey at Thanksgiving — we associate food with the people we love and those we have lost,” says Ellen Goodman, Pulitzer Prize Winning journalist and founder of The Conversation Project. “We hope people will celebrate life while talking about death. We know one conversation can make all the difference and good food and wine can make any topic more palatable.”

Materials provided by #721 include The Conversation’s Project’s Starter Kit, a step-by-step guide developed to help people have “the conversation” about their preferences for end of life care.  The guide is designed to be used by families, or by individuals, as a way to help them think about and communicate important end of life decisions. From how much information the doctor should share with the family, to which family member is to be the primary decision maker, the starter kit helps people think about situations and how they might address them.

“We hope those who join 721’s national dinner party remember their loved ones who have cooked for them by singing their praises and sharing their wisdom,” says Michael Hebb, founder of Death Over Dinner.  “Let’s all have this conversation and delve deeply into what it means to feast together. And, let’s live lives that people will celebrate after we have gone.”

Death Over Dinner works to bring people to the dinner table to create social change with the idea that dinners result in action and create deep engagement and profound relationships with participants. To date, Death Over Dinner has been the impetus for thousands of dinners held across the nation and abroad.

Last year more than 1,500 #721 dinners were held throughout the U.S. and the campaign drove more than 20,000 people to the organizations’ websites where they registered to host dinners and downloaded The Conversation Project’s Starter Kit.

Ninety percent of Americans say it’s important to talk about their end-of-life care wishes, yet 30 percent of people actually have that conversation. #721 is committed to changing our national culture from not talking about end-of-life care to talking about it – in thousands of kitchens, living rooms, coffee shops and restaurants across the country. For more information about #721, visit or

About The Conversation Project

The Conversation Project, co-founded by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ellen Goodman, launched in collaboration with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI,) and supported by Cambia Health Foundation, is a public engagement campaign with a goal that is both simple and transformative: to have every person’s end-of-life wishes expressed and respected. Too many people die in a manner they would not choose and too many of their loved ones are left feeling bereaved, guilty, and uncertain. The Conversation Project offers people the tools, guidance, and resources they need to process their final desires for their life and begin talking with their loved ones, in a comfortable setting, about their wishes and preferences. Have you had The Conversation? Learn more at:

About Death Over Dinner is an interactive website and cultural movement dedicated to giving people the permission and the tools to powerfully discuss end of life with their friends and loved ones. Created by Michael Hebb and developed at the University Of Washington Masters Of Communication Department in collaboration with interactive firm CIVILIZATION, has already inspired over 40,000 people to break bread and explore the many aspects of mortality, ageing, and the choices we face at the end of our lives.

2015 721 Press Release