Talking Turkey on End-of-Life Issues at Thanksgiving

Nov 24, 2014 | 0 comments

Gail Rubin, CT, speaking at the Albuquerque Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

Gail Rubin, CT, speaking at the Albuquerque Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

As families gather this week to celebrate Thanksgiving, with multiple generations together under one roof, the holidays provide an opportune time to discuss important end-of-life issues: advance medical directives, wills and estate planning, and funeral plans. Here are a number of sources that can help get the conversation started – if not over the turkey, than perhaps the pumpkin pie. Okay, maybe wait until Black Friday – that’s an appropriately named day!

I just did a talk at the Albuquerque Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on “A Good Goodbye: End-of-Life Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die.” We covered details about hospice and palliative care, cremation, donating your body to science, green burial and other issues related to funeral planning. Here’s the 37-minute talk on YouTube.

A Talk For Those Who Don't Plan to Die

On November 13, I was the guest on the radio show, “Talk About Las Vegas with Ira.” We discussed my (then) upcoming talk about Jewish Funeral Traditions on Film sponsored by the JCC of Southern Nevada. Included in our conversation was the idea of having a funeral planning conversation when all the family is gathered at Thanksgiving. He didn’t think talking about it over the turkey would go over well, but maybe over dessert. Listen to the podcast.

The “Speak Up” article by Tom Lauricella in The Wall Street Journal Sunday provides many good tips on how to discuss serious family matters over the holidays. He suggests starting by having the oldest generation talk about family history and what matters most to them. It’s an opportunity for grandparents to impart life lessons, as well as discuss memorial planning. He talks with financial planners who discuss ways to talk family finances without everyone getting angry. It’s also a time to talk about family heirlooms and family vacation homes – find out who is interested in getting what.

Engage With Grace The One Slide ProjectEvery Thanksgiving, the non-profit organization Engage With Grace encourages families to talk about end-of-life wishes and offers The One Slide Project with five simple questions to get the conversation started. They are:

  • On a scale of 1 to 5, where do you fall on this continuum?  (ranging from “Let me die without medical intervention” to “Don’t give up on me no matter what, try any proven and unproven intervention possible”)
  • If there were a choice, would you prefer to die… at home, or in a hospital
  • Could a loved one correctly describe how you’d like to be treated in the case of a terminal illness?
  • Is there someone you trust whom you’ve appointed to advocate on your behalf when the time is near?
  • Have you completed any of the following: written a living will, appointed a healthcare power of attorney, or completed an advanced directive?

Check out The One Slide Project at

The free Have a Talk of a Lifetime brochure from FAMIC, the Funeral and Memorial Information Council, provides conversation-provoking questions that can start storytelling about what matters most, lessons learned and how someone would want to be remembered. Download the brochure at

Have the Talk of a Lifetime

On public radio, the program “To The Best of Our Knowledge” has a five-part series on death. Each hour long program provides thoughtful interviews and looks at steps in the process. Here is the radio program’s description of each episode:

    • The Reckoning: Did you hear? There’s a death movement going on in America. After decades of sanitized death, with dying, funerals, burial and grief shielded from public view, some people are now working to make death a greater part of life. In this hour, we talk with experts about how to begin these difficult conversations, and how they can transform both the dying and the surviving.
    • Exit Plan: “Death is not a failure,” writes Dr. Atul Gawande. “Death may be the enemy, but it is also the natural order of things.” We live much longer than we used to, thanks to medical advances, but what are the emotional and financial costs of extending life?  Some doctors don’t know how to talk with their patients about preparing for death, so there’s now a push to have frank conversations about end-of-life care. Also,one family’s story of working within Oregon’s “Death with Dignity” law.
    • The Last Moment: In this hour, we explore the medical, spiritual and psychological questions about the moment of death. One hospice worker shares the story of how her fear of sickness and death turned to wonder at the mystery of our final moments. A Buddhist chaplain talks about preparing – now – to meet our final moments mindfully. Also, as resuscitation science makes it ever-more possible for us to bring back people whose hearts have stopped, we take a look at the growing scientific debate over near-death experiences. Do these extraordinary experiences reveal a transcendent reality, or are they simply the biochemical product of a brain that’s shutting down?
    • The Wake: (coming Nov. 30) What does it mean to grieve well? “Griefwalker” Stephen Jenkinson says that many cultures have “deep and skilled practitioners of grief.” In this hour, explore the pain and healing power of grief, and learn about burial and mourning rituals throughout history. We’ll also hear poignant personal stories from people whose jobs bring them into daily contact with death, from a woman who worked for nine years in an inner-city funeral home, to a Ghanaian man who creates “fantasy coffins.”
    • After Life: (coming Dec. 7) Is death what gives life meaning? Looking at the prominence of death and the afterlife in so many religions, you might think so. But for millennia, people have also dreamed about immortality, and now transhumanists are actively trying to extend life by merging our bodies with machines. In this hour, we explore the philosophical and religious dimensions of mortality and the afterlife. We talk about the art and poetry of remembrance, and now that much of our lives are lived on-line, how do we plan for our digital afterlives?
A Good Goodbye