From Taboo to Table Talk: Changing the Culture Around Death
Mention death in any typical American setting, and you’re likely to leave your conversation companions squirming.
But Nicole Fullmer is out to change that.
Several years ago, Nicole’s 43-year-old husband died suddenly of a massive heart attack. Nicole knew her husband was an organ donor and that he wanted to be cremated, but his parents weren’t aware of these wishes. Instead of creating an opportunity to grieve together, the final arrangements for Nicole’s husband fractured the family.
Today, Nicole is the executive director of Honoring Choices Delaware, an independent nonprofit launched by Delaware Hospice in 2017 to help people engage in conversations about their end-of-life wishes. The organization works to educate Delawareans about advance care options and empowers them to make end-of-life choices that reflect their values and beliefs—while they can still speak for themselves.
“Nobody really likes to talk about death. We plan for everything else—graduation, marriage, children, retirement. But what’s really inevitable are taxes and death. What I do is have those difficult conversations with people,” Fullmer explains.
Honoring Choices Delaware targets healthcare providers, elder law attorneys, religious organizations and others to create a culture where talking about death is normalized. Individuals as young as 18 are eligible—and encouraged—to create their own advance directives, and urged to talk to their parents and grandparents about what a good life looks like to them at the end of the journey.
Often, talking about death brings people closer together. And the things people learn about each other can be enlightening—like the family that discovered that grandpa would rather feel well enough to go fishing with his grandson than continue with chemo, that nana always wants her nails to look pretty, or that mom wants to be an organ donor. And knowing exactly what your loved ones wish for can ease a difficult situation.
New partnership initiatives between Honoring Choices Delaware and Delaware Hospice take a creative approach to changing the culture around death. Coffee shop discussions with titles like “Cocktails and Coffins” or “Muffins and Mortality” encourage conversation about the topic, while “Death Over Dinner,” an upcoming pilot project, will engage hosts to throw Tupperware-style parties that invite their guests to discuss death over a meal.
In America, we’re primed to think of death as the enemy, as a problem to be fixed. But in the process, we often add new levels of pain and anxiety to an inevitable part of life. Honoring Choices Delaware seeks to help people find dignity and peace by talking about death and expressing their wishes in advance.