Provocative subjects are all on the table for Michael Hebb, a compulsive project pioneer who has been dubbed an “underground restaurateur” by The New York Times—as much for the award-winning restaurants he has cofounded (such as Portland eatery Clarklewis) as for his series of clandestine, offbeat dinner events that are credited with starting the now ubiquitous “pop-up.” It’s only natural that his latest project, Death Over Dinner, a web platform he launched in 2013 to inspire an open conversation on the topic of death, would center around a shared meal: it’s one in which such conversations used to take place. “We really stopped sharing food and ideas around the dinner table, and when we forget to eat together, we forget who we are.”
Hebb’s Death Over Dinner—a “trail guide” that coaches people on how to lead this difficult conversation with loved ones and friends—has been launched in multiple countries and languages, including Australia, India and Brazil, and is now being adapted into a book that will be released this month, Let’s Talk About Death (Over Dinner) (Da Capo, $26). Hebb estimates that over the course of the project, more than 150,000 “death dinners” have been hosted. “It’s the most important conversation we’re not having,” he says. “End-of-life care expenses are the leading cause of American bankruptcies,” he writes, explaining most people “don’t want expensive, extreme life-prolonging measures, but they haven’t talked to their families about their preferences, and no one has asked.”
What’s more, not talking about death is a missed opportunity to connect, heal and transform—something he’s observed among friends and family over 20 years of hosting events at the dinner table. “The project isn’t really about death at all,” Hebb says, “but [about] giving people the permission and the guidance to connect deeply with the people in our lives, which I think is the real secret to happiness.”
Hebb, who lost his father when he was 13, was partially inspired to launch Death Over Dinner because his family avoided talking about the subject.
Hebb’s influence in Seattle, where he lives in Capitol Hill, is wide ranging: He cofounded the Cloud Room, the City Arts Festival and the creative food-and-discourse-based agency Convivium/One Pot, which has served clients ranging from the Dalai Lama to Barack Obama.
Hebb will speak about his Death Over Dinner campaign and his new book in an appearance on Thursday, October 11 at The Collective in South Lake Union. For more information, visit townhallseattle.org