Dinner with strangers can be awkward. It can be even more awkward if you’re there to talk about death. And even more so when the death is your own.
We were a group of Jewish educators gathered together for Death Over Dinner, a two-hour, facilitated conversation about something most of us aren’t talking about at all — death and dying.
The Jewish version of this gathering, made possible by Reboot and IKAR, includes remembering our dead, studying Jewish texts on death and dying, learning some practicalities of supporting loved ones through preparing for and living through death, and mindfully imagining the impossible: our own deaths.
Sounds like the most uncomfortable dinner party ever, right? Why would anyone sign up for that?
Because talking about death — and specifically one’s own death — can help us to avoid suffering now and later, and honor both our loved ones and ourselves. It is an important conversation that can’t happen as fully in the moments directly preceding or following death. And our own experiences with traumatic death in our respective families and communities illuminated how crucial it is to have these conversations.
The dinner began with a l’chaim – a toast. Each of us took turns raising our glasses in memory of a loved one who changed our lives. We told these stories over a lit yahrzeit (memorial) candle. We gave ourselves permission as a group, and as individuals, to mourn people who we felt we had not previously or adequately mourned — maybe because we thought others had more “official rights” to mourning, or because we felt anger that was best left unshared at the time of death, or because we hurt too much at the time to mourn the way we needed.
The gathering became a sort of sacred space and akin to a yahrzeit (an annual commemoration of a loved one’s death). We were a group of people who may never gather again sharing stories of tremendous intimacy.
Each of us had a chance to tell stories of our loved ones, of losses old and new. We acknowledged that we are all part of a larger story and that our loved ones — in fact, all people — are kept alive through stories that we tell. As Jews, we are accustomed to keeping memories alive through the telling of stories. Reading the weekly Torah portion and retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt during the Passover seder are just two examples of how we use stories to maintain the collective memory of the Jewish people.
By this point, you must think we’re obsessed with death. Quite the contrary. As Jewish educators, we each had our own professional and personal experiences of being called to support others as they transitioned through the phases of life. We were aware of the abundance of available resources on death and of the need to cultivate and curate resources for people of all ages.
We asked ourselves: When do we talk about death? Do we wait for a moment when the conversation is specifically needed? Or do we tackle it as a community? How do we treat other kinds of loss, like pets? Over dinner, we worked together to develop a personal and Jewish vocabulary for these hard feelings so that we are prepared to be present in the moment when more urgent traumas emerge.
We came away with the realization that we can’t hold on to traditional definitions of mourning anymore. Modern psychology reinforces the wisdom of Jewish grief rituals, but it also shows us that pain is not limited to the people defined by Jewish law as mourners (typically immediate family members) or limited to the timeframes prescribed by Jewish law. The dinner gave us a framework to redefine what family means, to open up new and perhaps controversial ideas about who constitutes a mourner and how long we can mourn. What if our best friend dies? Can we sit shiva for them? What if a sibling or a newborn dies and we want to mourn them in a manner that goes beyond the traditional Jewish timeline? What if we want to say the Mourner’s Kaddish with a virtual minyan online instead of a real-life one?
Redefining mourning today within new formulations of community gave us permission to recognize our families as bigger and less bounded, our pain as real, and our voices as authentic. We were changed by this experience and think that you might be too. We highly recommend participating in a Death Over Dinner or Death Over Dinner Jewish Edition gathering.
You can also try it at home. Here are some questions to get you started.
- When and how might I speak to my loved ones about death? What resources could assist me, and how might I access them?
- How might I speak to my loved ones about my preparations for my own death? What resources could assist me?
- How might I speak to my loved ones about preparations they might have already undertaken in preparing for their own death? What resources could assist me?
Sign up for a Journey Through Grief & Mourning: Whether you have lost a loved one recently or just want to learn the basics of Jewish mourning rituals, this 8-part email series will guide you through everything you need to know and help you feel supported and comforted at a difficult time.
Looking for a way to say Mourner’s Kaddish in a minyan? My Jewish Learning’s daily online minyan gives mourners and others an opportunity to say Kaddish in community and learn from leading rabbis.
Pronounced: luh-KHYME (rhymes with time), Origin: Hebrew, to life, often said as a toast before drinking alcohol.
Pronounced: YAHR-tzite (long i), Origin: Yiddish, anniversary of a death on the Jewish calendar.
Pronounced: SAY-der, Origin: Hebrew, literally “order”; usually used to describe the ceremonial meal and telling of the Passover story on the first two nights of Passover. (In Israel, Jews have a seder only on the first night of Passover.)
Pronounced: SHI-vuh (short i), Origin: Hebrew, seven days of mourning after a funeral, when the mourner stays at home and observes various rituals.
Pronounced: KAH-dish, Origin: Hebrew, usually referring to the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer recited in memory of the dead.
Pronounced: MIN-yun, meen-YAHN, Origin: Hebrew, quorum of 10 adult Jews (traditionally Jewish men) necessary for reciting many prayers.