Michael Hebb — Death Over Dinner

"Death is the Medicine. We often think about medicine as a thing that staves off death, that keeps us from death, that battles death. And it's a pretty powerful thing to invert that and to think that death itself is actually the medicine." — Michael Hebb
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When You Die

Podcast with Michael Hebb

Podcast Transcription

Johanna Lunn: Welcome to the When You Die podcast. I’m your host Johanna Lunn. With me today is Michael Hebb, author, speaker, provocateur. He is driven by the desire to make the world a more compassionate place. To that end, he has hosted tens of thousands of people at the virtual dinner table in order to change the world by providing a safe space to explore drugs and addiction, climate action, gender and equality, and death. Welcome Michael, I’m so glad that you could join me today. I am delighted to have this chance to talk you. So, welcome to my dinner table.

Michael Hebb: Honoured to be here.

JL: You have done so many things. And I love that you’ve used the metaphor, and the actuality, of sharing food to have great conversations about so many crucial topics. It’s a wonderful and brilliant entrée into a lot of very difficult and diverse conversations. So, I’m wondering what is your guiding principle for why you do what you do? Because all of these topics, and many more, including end of life, are robust and deep and full. How do you do what you do?

MH: The mission statement came to me in my early twenties. And I knew that I was focused already on reducing suffering on the planet. That was just clear to me. Once you suffer deeply, there are plenty of different things you can do with that experience, but one of the paths is taking an interest in reducing others’ suffering.

I read this quote from Stewart Brand, four words that he wrote. Stewart Brand is, as I’m sure you know, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, which in many ways fueled the back-to-earth, return to agrarian, commune, do-it-yourself movement. And Stewart wrote, “My client is civilization.” And for me that was very focusing.

Some people might hear that and say, “Well, that’s very grandiose.” It’s not about its grandiosity. It’s about the orientation. Can you look at each project and say, “Who’s my client?” Your client may be Microsoft, but is your work there improving the lives of people on the planet? And for me, if it’s not, the answer’s always been “no.” And so very early on I stopped working with brands and started working a lot with non-profits, because it was easier to understand that we were actually working on improving civilization and evolving.

It’s so ingrained. I wake up and think about how I can improve things on planet earth. And sometimes that’s hyper-local. It certainly does start with oneself – always. But it can be as simple as, “How do I make this neighbourhood more beautiful and aligned and vital?”

JL: I love that. So, civilization is your client.

MH: Yes.

JL: Making the world a better place. I’m with you totally on that one. I had come across this little statement that you’d said in an interview with Chase Jarvis. You said, “If you want a mission statement for life, face your mortality. I guarantee you’ll get a mission statement.” That was such a wonderful, wonderful thing to say. I think it’s true. But where did the rubber meet the road in terms of your mortality?

MH: I think the essence of that statement is one that we can come back to, which is that death is the medicine, or death is medicine. We often think about medicine as a thing that staves off death, keeps us from death, that battles death, and it’s a pretty powerful thing to invert that, to think that death itself is actually the medicine. It really wakes us up.

As far as for me, personally, my life shifted significantly when my father died when I was thirteen. He’d been sick for awhile. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was in second grade. So, the last seven years of his life were pretty fraught and had a very damaging impact on our family. As far as having good communication about his illness, about his impending death, how we felt about it, how we could plan for it, and how we could honour it, none of those conversations were had. And so, it ended up being a very shameful thing that my dad was sick and dying and really destroyed my nuclear family ties and also the extended family.

So, I had to go searching for mentors. But before I did that there was this particular day concerning my father. I talk about this a lot, but I think it’s an important story that a lot of people can resonate with. It was Halloween, the day he died, and I went to school that day, and I didn’t tell anyone at school. I looked around and just made what I think was a pretty smart evaluation of the people in the room and decided that no one could hold the weight or the experience of my grief. And I didn’t know actually how to access my grief.

We act as if grief is just this thing, this button we can push or this room we can walk into. Especially, I think that men are not taught how to access emotions. We’re actually taught how to suppress emotions and are messaged to repress them. So, for men, grief is not that accessible generally. But I didn’t even think that anyone could take the weight of the information.

So, I ended up going to school and then I ended up going out on Halloween night like people do. I was a thirteen-year-old kid, a popular kid. And I was going to be out causing trouble, going to be drinking, going to be TPing houses. You’re going to be doing all sorts of things, going to be an asshole, essentially. So, there we were being little jerks, and something was very different. I still didn’t tell anybody, and there was this gap, this kind of skip in the music in my consciousness, in my experience. I was no longer at the front of the herd making the decision about what we were going to do. I was watching my peers and watching myself with this new awareness. And then I decided that I actually didn’t like either, my peers or me. I didn’t like who I was with them, and I didn’t like how they were behaving.

So, this is one of those gifts that death can give us: it’s an awakening, a shift in consciousness. Of course, that awakening ended up creating a great deal of pain for a long time, and that’s the suffering I mentioned, some of the suffering. And it was very painful to feel disconnected from my peers. Because that’s your whole world when you’re thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. And I started to fill that pain and that gap between me and my peers with big questions about spirituality and mysticism. I got very interested in Eastern spirituality. I got very interested in Christ, in Thomas Merton, in St. Francis of Assisi, in Thich Nhat Han, in Buddhism, in Transcendental Meditation. I started to call in mentors. You know, like when the student is ready the teacher arrives. And from then until now mentors have showed up for me. So, that was really where the consciousness awoke, that there’s something more to do with this thing called “life” than just go along with the herd or the flow or what was expected of me. That maybe there was some larger expectation of there existing a much larger being or universe. And I guess I was born at that point as a kind of spiritual being, if you will. [laughs]

JL: [Laughs] It’s true of death of all kinds, all those huge life-shattering moments. It’s not always a mortal death, but big deaths, a divorce or things like that. There’s a crack in the universe somehow, and there’s some clarity in that and an incredible amount of pain. But in that is a certain kind of rebirth. I think it’s amazing when we can see it and allow the pain to be there, to wash over us and not push it away. We’re able to see that as a remarkable gift.

MH: For sure. I mean, birth is painful, right? We forget that. I mean, women don’t forget that.

JL: We don’t. [laughs]

MH: No. [laughs] But birth is painful. And it always includes a death. Divorces are deaths, but so are weddings. A wedding is a death ritual, the most popular death ritual other than birth. Birth is a pretty popular death ritual. Our non-parental selves die, and we’re now responsible for another being. And when you marry somebody, if your single self doesn’t die, then your marriage will die. That’s not the only thing that ends marriages, but it’s probably the principle reason.

And this is where people say,

“No one wants to talk about death!” But we talk about death all the time.

JL: All the time.

MH: Yeah, you’re always talking about it. Let me look at your Netflix, you know, your recently viewed history. I bet you it’s death, death, death, death, [laughs]. It’s not just about your documentary. [laughs]

JL: [laughs] That’s really a great way to look at it. It really is.

MH: Yeah, the bus has already left the station. People say, “You get people to talk about ….” No. I don’t get people to talk about death. They’re talking about death 24/7, 365. I’m just giving them permission to talk about it in a personal and existential way, not just in a response to Hollywood or these other very commonplace, prosaic ways. We just haven’t given people good imitations or good designs.

Good design is really important. Hollywood is a very good design. We have films, and this type of experience is printed on cellulose, and then it’s distributed, first in these very heavy unwieldy canisters, and then it’s projected. A lot of effort has gone into getting that message to people. And then think about the type of effort that has gone into creating a death literacy for people and the disparity between those two. There’s no mystery as to why we don’t talk about our own deaths. We have not spent the time, energy, money, resources, or creativity around the delivery device. And the designs and the scaffolding that go into shaping and delivering a message. So, it’s no surprise to me that people aren’t thinking about their own end of life wishes.

And that’s why we created Death Over Dinner. It’s funny, we created a bigger problem the moment that we launched Death Over Dinner, which is always good. You want your work to create bigger problems or to put on the horizon the bigger issue that you need to solve next, right? I think it was Samuel Beckett who said it’s “Try, fail, try again, fail better.” [laughs].

I love that notion. We essentially invited everyone to this experience. A million people have had death dinners and we’ve asked them to talk about their end-of-life wishes and then inspired them to make a plan, yet there was nowhere good we could send them to make a plan. There are a lot of incredible resources, like the Conversation Project or Advance Care Directives in different states or the NHBCO, and so on. There are a lot of great resources. But those aren’t plans. Those are elements within a plan.

Like, if I’m going to make a plan to go on a trip, it’s going to include my airfare, who I’m flying with, where I’m staying. I’m going to educate myself about the place that I’m going, right? And listen to some of the experts. I’m going to find some of the great hotels and restaurants and things that I want to see. I’m going to remember what friends happen to be in Rome, if I’m going to Rome. And preferably I’m not going to buy the ticket and make all of the arrangements the day before I leave, because it’s going to cost ten times what it would cost if I planned that a year ago.

It’s the same thing with death, the exact same thing. It’s either like planning a wedding or planning a trip to Rome. [laughs]. And it is ten times as expensive and really you miss the excitement of, “Let’s just wing it.” [laughs] That’s generally not good for weddings; it really pisses off a lot of people. And it’s very expensive from a travel perspective or can be.

So, we thought people need a place where they can go and they can create a simple plan well in advance of the death or while they’re in the middle of an end-of-life event. So, let’s create a plan and then let’s make sure that all of those things are there. The best providers are there. They’re on the site. And if you think, “Hey, I need to know about ecological burial,” the president of the Green Burial Council is going to raise their hand and say, “Let me help you.” And that’s already happening.

So, we have eWill, which is a community, a simple planning tool, and it’s a place with all of the best providers. The top experts in the field have been contributing content for the last three years. We’re not there yet, but we’re hoping to be. One element of eWill is to have it be like the Netflix of end-of-life, since we’re talking about film.

JL: And, of course, we do hope that In the Realm of Death and Dreaming is part of your Netflix community there.

MH: Of course. It’s on the must-watch list.

JL: [laughs] Excellent. Excellent.

MH: The trending, the top ten in the world today, on Netflix of death. [laughs]

JL: The Netflix of death, that’s right.

MH: Yeah. [laughs]

JL: It’s even more than making your plan because you’ve got a whole section for healthcare providers to talk to one another. You’ve got all of these institutions coast to coast that don’t really know how their community of physicians want to approach death. Individual physicians have had varying degrees of success being able to be comfortable with the idea of death, when all their training was to keep people alive. This is a radical shift within the medical framework, and you’ve got a safe place where physicians can talk to one another and to other members of the healthcare community. That’s kind of amazing. I don’t really know of another model like that.

MH: Yes. There’s not when it comes to end-of-life. There are places that physicians can talk about symptom management, research etc. But there’s nothing as relates to end-of-life, which is the only prognosis that we all have, right? It’s the only thing that is absolutely sure from a medical and from a human perspective. And one thing that’s really exciting to me about eWill is that for the first time we’re gathering medical directors and funeral directors in the same place, and everybody in between.

And then on the outside of that, are also included the planners, the insurance providers, the legal providers, the financial advisors, the end-of-life planners. And then you get into more of the acute needs with the medical directors and palliative care providers but also, all kinds of physicians and clinicians. To have them be in conversation with, and visible to, funeral directors and vice versa. They’re not completely walled off like the Berlin wall.

And on the other side of that is grief. And none of these people have been connected. These four main categories of planning, acute care, death care, and grief, have never actually been seen as one and the same industry or one and the same community. And they suffer and we suffer as patients and loved ones by them not being connected, not knowing about each other, not sharing resources, not sharing best practices. Even just smiling and winking at each other, right? It’s beautiful to watch the social environment but also have it filled with functional, necessary providers, the things that we need.

JL: It’s true. They’ve all been in their own towers. I think it’s very exciting to witness the emerging connectivity of all of these people. That even goes beyond the death community in a way. I feel we’re waking up a little bit in the world and starting to see, particularly with COVID-19, how we are really connected. Places can shelter themselves and flatten the curve and do all this work and then one traveler comes in and “Boom!” It’s all up again. And you think, “But you didn’t … How did that happen? We were cool right here.” Well, no, we really are connected. We are deeply connected in so, so many ways.

To see the role of grief and setting a good ground of grieving for people when a relative is on their way out the door, to see how healthcare workers are impacted by working with death every single day and recognizing not just best practices of care, but what are best practices for caring for the caregivers. And on and on and on it goes. This whole wrapper is like a new little universe, to bring them all together, to see how they’ve always been together, but in a very dysfunctional way.

MH: Yes, the amount of moral distress, the amount of trauma, the amount of suppression and repression which causes disease in the first place, that is contained in this whole sector of life. If that were the case in any other sector, if, just for example, we dealt with all of these maladies in birth, we would have fixed it. If we dealt with all of these maladies around being a teenager or in your twenties or being retired and so on, we would have dealt with it.

I feel compassion for why we haven’t. People say, “We need to stop death denial.” And certainly, we need to ease death denial, and we need to become a death literate culture, but we’re inherently biased to not want to think about our own death. And that’s okay. This is a mechanism that breathes, this is a heart that beats, it knows it is designed to do that thing, it doesn’t want to think about the cessation of that. And that’s okay.

And as humans, we also have a very basic human bias that often gets overlooked. We haven’t experienced something that’s very hard for us to imagine actually exists. It’s a part of our brain that is either developed or it’s not developed. It’s developed via creativity, when we’ve killed a lot of arts programming. It’s not that we don’t have to do the work around racism, that we don’t have do the work around these things. Of course, we do. But there is a bias that just implicitly exists in people. If they haven’t experienced it, it’s harder for them to imagine it. And so, that’s a larger issue of how we create empathy. It’s not just built into us. It’s there to be turned on. But our culture needs to support it.

JL: That makes a lot of sense. It needs to be turned on.

MH: Yeah. People talk about epigenetics. And the thing about epigenetics is that we can turn up the bad epigenetics, or we can turn up the positive epigenetics that we’ve been given. We have this gift in our DNA, or we have this curse in our DNA. And depending upon what work we do, how we live, our behaviours, and the work that we do into our own trauma, we turn on different parts of our epigenetics, our strengths or our weaknesses. Our kryptonite or our superpowers, right? [laughs]

JL: That’s interesting. I have never heard it put that way. Certainly, I’ve thought a lot about the role of fear in death denial. And that’s both a very primitive thing and also a very real thing, that we don’t like what we don’t know. We’re uncomfortable. People are going on a blind date and they’re nervous, they’re scared, they’re afraid because they don’t know what it’s going to be like.

MH: Sure.

JL: I think that death is certainly one of those things that we’ve not formed a relationship with. Partly because we’ve really pushed it away in the past hundred years or so.

I always come back to this example of my mother’s house because it was a family homestead in a rural area of Pennsylvania and people were born there. Lots of people were born there. Lots of people died there. And the house was purpose-built. It actually had a little door in the parlour. It was the living room then, that was rebranded after WWII. It was a parlour and it was specifically for coffins and dead bodies to go out of the house, because you’d never take a dead body out the front door. So, there it was. When it was my grandmother’s time to die, she just lay down on the sofa in the parlour.

 MH: Mm hm.

JL: She stopped eating and drinking and said, “I’ve had enough.”

MH: [laughs]

JL: That’s what she did. And that’s what her sister did and that’s what her parents did and that’s what all the people that had died in that house did. It was just, “Yeah, okay we’re done.” Unless they fell off a cliff or something, or died in some other dramatic way, they lay down and ….

MH: Like high lamas, high Tibetan monks.

We’ve over-medicalized death. Death is a community act, it’s not a medical act. People like to blame “the system” for it. I don’t think there’s such a clear villain in it. I think as soon as we started to emphasize Western Cartesian ideals, it was inevitable that we were going to land where we are. And it has been heightened by the fact that attitudes around death have changed so significantly in the last fifty years. And we’ll never go back, most likely, to what it was.

And that change that I’m talking about is the reality of announced deaths. So, even though we look at your lineage and think about, “I’ll have my last martini, and then I’m going to lay down in the parlour, and maybe I’ll read a little bit of Keats, and then I’ll be out.” That happened only because somebody didn’t say, “You have a high likelihood of breast cancer because of this particular strain, and maybe you should have a double mastectomy.” It didn’t look like, “You have colon cancer and your chances of survival are fifteen percent,” or some variant of that.

The idea of announced deaths has shaken us completely, and we don’t acknowledge it. People say, “Well they’re much better around death in India or in Mexico.” Or “The Aboriginal people’s relationship or the Native American relationship to death ….” Or Stephen Jenkinson, who’s close to you. It’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s absolutely true.” There’s a ton of indigenous wisdom, ancient wisdom, but none of those traditions have any ritual, wisdom, knowledge, to how to deal with a terminal diagnosis.

JL: Right.

MH: Eight out of 10 of us, I think, will die of announced deaths. That is a completely living-on-another-planet experience around death. Of course, we’re messed up about it, right? Of course, we’re grappling, and of course, we medicalize the shit out of it. We just put it all into a medical framework.

So, to reclaim at least that last chapter, that last bit, into a community presence is the job that we’re all doing right now. And we need to understand what happened, and we need to understand why, and we need to be compassionate. So, I’m compassionate when your family doesn’t want to talk about it, when your parents don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to have, “The Conversation.” Why do you want to have, “The Conversation?” No one wants to have, “The Conversation.” You know, we’re going about it in many wrong ways. There’s a lot of room for patience and sympathy and understanding. It’s an exciting time, I think. [laughs]

JL: I think so too. I think so too. So, I’m just curious, at this moment in your life what are you most passionate about right now?

MH: You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about, “The future of death.” And it’s a funny thing. It’s what my next book will probably be called. I started to write it, but it’s almost like this oxymoronic turn of phrase, “What is the future of death?” And it looks a lot like the past. For me, I have to learn from the past. We’re alive at a time when human bodies are being composted legally as a beautiful practice in Washington State, right?

JL: Yes.

MH: We’re alive in time when Elon Musk is dreaming of sending people off to Mars. Will they will die on Mars? Homo sapiens dying on other planets? What are those burials going to look like? What are the monuments for the dead on Mars going to look like? This is a really strange time. And still there are people in Silicon Valley trying to defeat death, or cure it, so that’s fascinating. But I’m struck by the fact that COVID-19, well, it’s a lot of things, but I think that it is actually the fertile ground from which the future of compassionate care will come.

JL: Mmm.

MH: And I’m using the AIDS crisis as my binary example. My mentors in the end-of-life space were shaped in the Aids pandemic: Ira Byock, Frank Ostaseski, Katie Butler, even Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, were deeply shaped by the AIDS crisis. It taught them so many lessons. It brought Buddhism and compassionate care into the centre of end-of-life care, the very centre. It wasn’t there before. And now what is going to come out of COVID? Because it is going to create the future of end-of-life care, of compassionate care. I think that the sea change is going to be doing away with, and hopefully obliterating, the disparities and the inequities in end-of-life care when it comes to BIPOC and Queer communities. If COVID does that, it’s already raised it up. We can’t ignore it. End-of-life care for a person of colour is significantly worse. We can’t unsee that. We can’t unknow it. So, if COVID gives us that, if it democratizes dying well, then there’s certainly no price or value you can put on that. But it gives me hope, so that’s where I’m focused right now.

JL: I really look forward to the next book.

MH: [laughs]

JL: It’s fascinating to think about all of that.

MH: Yes.

JL: In death there’s birth, right?

MH: Yes. For sure. I think that there are some cultures that actually have their calendar as the circle, right?

JL: Yes.

MH: I think right now our calendar’s more like a football game. [laughs]

 JL: [laughs] That’s true!

MH: And of course, you want to “fight,” “win,” “defeat,” you know, all of this terminology. When you have a linear system and you’re shown a linear calendar, of course, it’s about winning. The linear is designed around that, but the cyclical and the circular makes winning kind of ridiculous. And now we know that that terminology around end-of-life actually hurts us deeply. We know that journey metaphors around end-of-life actually improve care and improve the experience of care. You can be giving the same care to a patient and tell them that they’re on a journey, or you can say that they’re battling or fighting. The medicine will do more for them depending on the metaphor you’re using.

JL: Mmm.

MH: As storytellers we know this, right?

JL: Yes, yes, yes!

MH: But it’s pretty amazing to get it at the level of a clinician.

JL: Well, words matter, right? Just like environments matter. Our body is constantly responding to the environment that we’re put into. Everybody thinks everything’s happening in their brain, in their head, that their brain is their consciousness. But actually, we’re completely wired, head-to-toe, for receiving and transmitting information. It’s crazy. I mean, humans are not what most of us think we are. We’re far more amazing.

MH: Yes. Absolutely! For a lot of people that’s terrifying to think about. [laughs]

JL: [laughs] Oh, I don’t know. I find it exciting. But, yes….

MH: Well, I mean that’s the thing. You know the Marianne Williamson notion that what we’re afraid of is our power and our brilliance and our radiance. She said it best. But we’ll see.

The other thing is, we haven’t lived in a culture that is vibrating, thinking, on a high-level, heart-based frequency at scale. We may be getting closer to it, or we may not. But we know if we look back historically and say, “What happens when a lot of people are heart-based and are together? Oh, you get the Vedas, you get the Upanishads. And that’s pretty good!” [laughs]

JL: Well, I think we are at one of those big historic moments. I think the turn of the last century, to the 1900s, was an interesting time from a theosophical point of view. It was an interesting time spiritually. Abstract art came in, and there was Rudolph Steiner’s work. It was kind of like there was some little crack and these things came out of it. And I think that we are at another, similar kind of point where things are shifting. I mean, the fact that we’re having this conversation, that you’re even thinking about things like the future of death, these are really transformative thoughts. These are shift points, and I think they are leading our curiosity and our desire to learn more about death. Because we have to.

MH: That’s my question: “Is it the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius or is it the fact that boomers are getting closer to death?” [laughs]

JL: Well for sure, you know …

MH: I hope it’s both. [laughs]

JL: Well, I don’t think you can take them apart. I don’t think you can really separate them. But we’re not our parents’ death-bed experiencers.

MH: Yeah, the silent generation gave way to the boomers. It’s a very different type of psyche, one that’s been empowered to ask for what they need and have the resources to pay for it. It’s great, whether it’s a kundalini rising or … [laughs]

JL: [laughs]

MH: … or just a lot of very self-expressed humans, we’ll work with it.

JL: We’ll work with it. We’ll work with it.

MH: [laughs] 

JL: Well maybe on that note I should thank you very much for spending this time together, and I really look forward to another conversation one of these days.

MH: Likewise. That was too much fun. Let’s do it again.

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