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Talking About Death Over Dinner

Lesley McClurg / Capital Public Radio

A San Francisco dinner party. From left to right: Tim Ferriss, Laura Deming, Luke Nosek, Eric Weinstein, Mason Hartman, and Max Hodak.

Lesley McClurg / Capital Public Radio

Eric Weinstein, the managing director for Thiel Capital, and his wife Pia Malaney invite a diverse group of guests with ties to Silicon Valley to their home in San Francisco for a frank conversation about death.  

Five guests arrive just as the sun is setting on a Sunday evening.

People introduce themselves in the living room with the San Francisco Bay as the backdrop.

Even though everyone is tied to the tech industry in some form, they’ve never actually met as a group in person. After a few minutes of small talk and hors d'oeuvres, Weinstein welcomes the group with a formal introduction.

“Let’s try to have a really thoughtful structured conversation about the ultimate opponent, he says. "To confront death on its own’s terms and see if we can score a few points it against it.” 

This is the first time he’s hosted a death dinner. But Weinstein has attended a similar event as a guest. He says the experience showed him that a conversation over food makes it easier to broach difficult topics.

The group migrates to the dining room where plates are filled with seared salmon, black rice, caprese salad and and mixed greens. Pia Malaney tops off everyone’s wine glass.  

Weinstein opens the conversation. “How many of us are motivated to think about death at least recently because of a particular loss that hit us incredibly hard?” asks Weinstein. 

Luke Nosek, a co-founder of Paypal, shares the story of a close friend who was recently hospitalized. “It was scary for a while imagining his death," says Nosek. "This is someone who’s not just a friend but who’s collaborating with me on some very important work. And, I thought what happens if his work isn't done? There’s no one to continue it.”

Eventually Nosek’s friend recovered. But, the experience made him reflect on what he would do if his own life were in question.  

“It’s always very clarifying," says Nosek. "At first there’s a reaction. Ahh... No! Ahh… Can’t work. Can’t do really anything. And, then suddenly there’s a clarity. I would do this, and this, and this.”

Weinstein nods in agreement. “I worry that who we are at dying is not really who we are while living,” he says. “People at the end of their lives tend to think a lot more about family, tradition, and connection. I’m not positive that we are supposed to think about those things in the prime of our lives. I’m not sure how to reconcile that.” 

Weinstein asks people in the group what they would do if they only had 24 hours to live. The answers vary slightly, but there is a similar thread of “family” threaded throughout each response.   

"I would try to give as many transformational gifts as possible," says Luke Nosek. “This might be things that I own. For most people, I think it would be some kind of teaching or some kind of experience that I’ve had that changed me."   

Tim Ferriss, the author of the The Four Hour Workweek says, “For the waking hours I would just be calling people I had fallen out of touch or people that I was already close to, to tell them what needed to be said before passing,” 

Pia Malaney says, “I have a friend of mine who was just diagnosed with breast cancer and she has a nine year old son like me. I think it’s very clear when you have a family what you would do with it. How do I set things up to be able to plan for them -- to be able to insure that they have a future?”  

The conversation twists and turns for more than an hour. The group talks about losing parents, funeral norms across cultures, even the ethics of life extension. Then, Eric Weinstein asks the table, “Do you feel that you’re doing anything of sufficient significance that your work will be felt 200 years beyond your demise.” 

Weinstein's wife Pia Malaney answers first. 

For context, both Weinstein and Malaney are accomplished economists with Ph.D.s from Harvard. They have both made significant contributions to academia.  

“You know in some sense there’s a gender issue. I think men very often are focused on the legacy they leave to the outside,” says Malaney. “And, women are focused on the legacy they leave to their children. And, I see it playing out perfectly within our relationship where you do really have a legacy to the outside world and I’m very focused on our legacy within.”   

“What you’re hiding is that you have a legacy to the outside world,” responds Weinstein. “You actually made the contribution and then you elected to prioritize what biologists would call kin work and raising your children. You would rather invest it in people rather than in timeless ideas.”

The room is quiet. A serious conversation about death can do that. 

The Death Over Dinner movement is international. More than 70,000 people have participated in more than 20 countries around the world. The website offers tips and resources on how to host your own dinner discussing the end of life before it's too late.