by Anne Bokma
The following is an excerpt from ‘My Year of Living Spiritually’ by Anne Bokma, published by Douglas & McIntyre.
The boomer generation is creating a death boom. Five thousand of us die every day in the U.S. In Canada, 235,000 people over age 60 die every year. Most of us want to die at home, in our sleep or surrounded by loved ones, but about 75 percent of us will die in a hospital or long-term care setting, often hooked up to feeding tubes and ventilators, tended to by strangers. We are watching our aging parents die this way, and we don’t like it one bit. Just as our demographic had an outsized influence on the civil and equal rights movements, we’re now at the forefront of a death acceptance movement that’s transforming the topic of dying from taboo to a normal part of life. We’re seeing the rise of death cafes, green cemeteries, home burials and legislation for medically assisted dying. Death is our last great spiritual experience. We want it to be meaningful, and we want as much control over it as possible.
Death Over Dinner is another initiative. Participants are encouraged to gather friends and family to break bread and talk about what constitutes a good death—and a good life. Death Over Dinner was founded five years ago by entrepreneur Michael Hebb, and since then 200,000 dinners have been hosted in 30 countries. “The way we die in Western society is broken,” Hebb said in an interview with the Guardian. “I had a hunch that open conversation about our end-of-life wishes could be the most impactful thing we could do to heal that system and to heal the way we die. We are death-illiterate, and when we don’t discuss death, we are not empowered to make decisions.”
As a death doula, Rochelle Martin teaches people how to become comfortable with death. And as an emergency room nurse, she’s had a lot more experience with death than any of the guests around my dining room table. Our dinner has a Last Supper feel: twelve of us are gathered together and the menu includes fish, loaves of bread and plenty of wine. There’s lots of laughter, despite the seriousness of the topic, and a certain lightheartedness too—I’ve ordered a cake in the shape of a tombstone from a local bakery and placed a plastic skull at each place setting with the guest’s name written in Magic Marker on the forehead. Six tea lights glow in the black candelabra that serves as the centrepiece. In Eucharistic fashion, we eat and we remember. Martin facilitates the discussion, encouraging us to go around the table and share a significant death we’ve experienced.