The group of seven mostly strangers arrived on that blustery October night with a healthy amount of apprehension. Understandably so: they had accepted a dinner invitation to an evening titled “Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death.” My friend Jenna had dragged her husband, Brian, and her friend Molly, a professor of medicine, along. Then there was Cynthia, a student; Jasmine, a performance artist; Sandy, a documentary filmmaker; Joe, an entrepreneur; and Eleanor, new to Seattle and still grappling with the incessant darkness of her first northwest fall.
The door opened onto a loft with soaring twenty-five-foot ceilings, the corners piled high with books, Lego castles, a nest of crystals, and other strange artifacts. A king-sized bed sat in the kitchen, and a piano, records, and a turntable filled out the room. If it weren’t for the pleasant aromas bubbling out of a few simmering pots, the entire scene would have felt like a middle-aged hippie nightmare. Coats were thrown on the bed, and introductions crisscrossed the room. I kept cooking.
Much to my guests’ surprise, I immediately gave them the task of setting the table, lighting the candles, and filling water glasses. We often make a great mistake when entertaining in America: we try to play God, or—worse yet—Martha Stewart, and guests’ only job is to be witty and appreciate the food. But humans are tribal creatures; we derive our value from what we contribute. So when people ask, as they unerringly do, “What can I do to help?” I always have an answer.
By the time we sat down, laughter had bubbled up more than a few times over the shared task of placing mismatched plates, silverware, and vintage wine glasses. The strangers were no longer covertly checking the time on their phones, wondering how long it would be until they were safely on their way home.
The room glowed amber. A dinner party should feel like a healthy secret. The lighting should remind us of childhood hours spent reading under our blankets with a dull flashlight. It is meant to evoke the campfire, the cave, the tree fort, the womb. Bright fluorescent lights are good for basketball games, but dinner parties wilt under these conditions.
The food was beautiful but simple: carrots blackened at the tips and swimming in fresh olive oil with Meyer lemon zest; savoy cabbage melted into sweetness with hard cider, thyme, and brown butter; black cod nudged against braised grapes and finished with Aleppo pepper and aged Banyuls vinegar. Each dish was arranged on a rustic platter, and the heavily aromatic air in the room let everyone know they had made the right decision coming to dinner.
There have been more than one hundred thousand of these dinners in the past five years, where strangers, friends, and coworkers gather around this seemingly awkward topic, and each dinner starts with the same simple offering. “Before we eat,” I said, “I would love it if we could each honor someone who is no longer with us, someone who has died who had a positive impact on your life. I suggest you choose the first person who comes to mind. Don’t edit here—they are first to your thoughts for a reason. Tell us their name and how they impacted your life, and then light a candle or raise a glass in their honor. And keep it to about a minute, as we all want to dig into this food.”
It was quiet for only a moment before Cynthia, the youngest in the group, gave a spirited shout-out. “I want to raise my glass to Willibel Sutton, my grandmother. The toughest bitch who ever lived.” Everyone laughed and clinked their glasses.
Cynthia then grew more earnest, carefully weighing her words. She told us how her grandfather, Bubba, wooed the difficult Willibel. He loved her more than anything in the world, constantly complimented her, and frequently said she’d look beautiful in a “toe sack” (potato sack). Night after night during their courtship he made her dinner. Each night, once she’d eaten, he’d silently rolled a single pearl across the table to her. She placed each pearl on a string around her neck so that, by the fortieth night, she had a full necklace. And that’s when he proposed.
On its surface the story seems to be more about the romantic patience of Cynthia’s grandfather than anything else. But as Cynthia reminded us, in the 1950s South it took a special sort of woman to command that level of devotion (and inspire a man to enter the kitchen in the first place, let alone for forty consecutive nights). Willibel defied all societal norms. Fiercely independent and highly intelligent, strong—and strong headed—she was a born leader. Her devotion to those lucky enough to know her was until death. As Cynthia spoke about missing her grandmother, she talked about the fiery advocate of equal rights and protections for the poor, but she also said, “I miss being loved by someone with the fierceness that Biddy loved me. She was my champion—singing my praises and cheering me on as I navigated through life, until she didn’t have a voice.”
Cynthia’s toast demonstrates the intersection of grief, humor, joy, pain, loss, personal history, and the desire to connect deeply with other humans that emerges at these dinners. These components are at the heart of the topics of death, dying, and mortality. Our little dinner table for eight was no longer in Seattle; it was no longer 2016. We were in the timeless space of human story. We could hear the pearls rolling across the table; we even had a sense that Willibel had pulled up a chair and joined us.
What was clear about the present—which came up over the course of the evening—was that it wasn’t just happenstance that Cynthia spoke first. She was eager to talk about her grandmother and had been for a long time. Our party heard how Cynthia’s mom, in her grief at losing her own mother, had refused to speak about the death, hammering down NO TRESPASSING signs around the topic of Willibel’s life ending. Cynthia couldn’t access her grief, and so it made the beauty and poetry of her grandmother’s life off limits as well. We need to fully grieve someone to fall back in love with them. It’s in the acceptance of their loss that we can regain the enchantment of their gifts to us.
We continued around the table, each in turn toasting and lighting a candle—Molly for her elderly neighbor whose funeral she had just attended that day; Brian and Jenna for their grandmothers, after whom they’d named their eldest daughter; Sally for a beloved aunt; Joe for a childhood friend; Eleanor for a godparent; and me for my father, as I always do. Everyone was fully present: no one checks their Instagram feed during a conversation about death. A group of strangers had each just shared something from the very center of their heart—jobs and accomplishments weren’t mentioned, and a profound sense of human connection had been created in a sum total of fifteen minutes.
It was time to eat.
Excerpted from Let’s Talk About Death (Over Dinner): An Invitation and Guide to Life’s Most Important Conversation by Michael Hebb. Copyright ©2018. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.