On Death (or: Life, as told through four prompts)

I am a student, coach, and writer.
Before I die, I want love to outweigh fear.
When I die, I want to return to nature and the collective consciousness.
After I die, I want the experiments of technology, civilization, mammals, and life to flourish sustainably.

Death is a subject fraught with taboo.

First, you as the speaker must be comfortable enough to bring it up. Second, your listener needs to be prepared and engaged to follow-up your comments with a thoughtful reply. The third and final necessity is a mutually known and understood direction or reason for the discussion.

Getting all three is tough, usually you get two. Perhaps grandpa is sick and only getting sicker, this gives mother and daughter the topic and purpose: what are pop-pop’s wishes? But mother might not want to believe she’s going to lose her father, so she declares that daughter’s attempts to bring up hospice care are an admission of defeat.

We rarely discuss death head-on— so, death tends to blindside us and we’re left whispering in the aftermath. On Death developed after hearing about an interactive art project in “Rethinking Death” by the TED Radio Hour. This artist covered the side of an abandoned building with chalkboard paint and the words “Before I die, I want to…” With a few sticks of chalk for adventurous pedestrians, the waiting game began to see what folks wrote.

The answers varied from the silly:
Before I die, I want to be tried for piracy,”
to the tragic:
Before I die, I want to hold her one last time,”
to the sublime:
Before I die, I want to
plant a tree.”

Each individual approached the carte blanche of this simple prompt differently, much like a Rorschach test which opens up the deeper strata of consciousness.

A few days later, while floating, I developed the four interview prompts for On Death

I am…
Before I die, I want…
When I die, I want…
After I die, I want…

Each carefully worded for maximum fill-in-the-blank: I removed the “to” after “want” because I felt this allowed the interviewee to follow with a verb or a noun, rather than the implied verb.

My goal with On Death is to open up a dialogue and discussion to the wider world. There are so many interesting people in my life and I want to hear each of their answers to the four prompts. I, the interviewer, accept the humbling job of teasing out a person’s closest thoughts and beliefs: how they approach and consider death. My guests, the interviewees, are allowed a platform to discuss death at length, something terribly rare in our wider culture. And four prompts, the direction, allow a natural progression from current state, to future death, and everything beyond and in between.

Frankly, this is a podcast that I want to hear. I love podcasts: ranging from the absurdly long form conversations (Joe Rogan Experience) to the highly produced and educational episodes (WNYC’s Radiolab). But, there is a special kind of podcast, a specific sort of conversation, which I actively seek, but rarely hear: a frank and intimate discussion.

Unlike most podcasts, the quality of each episode does not depend on the fame or notoriety of the guest: On Death highlights the quiet people that surround our everyday lives. The interview gives them a microphone and the safe space to open up and elaborate on their deepest thoughts. In this way, the responsibility shifts from the guest (be interesting!) to me as the interviewer (show the world how interesting they are!), and I gladly accept it.

It’s so odd to me that I need the excuse of a podcast to ask these questions. These are the questions that help you peer deep into a person’s spirit. Contrast with the typical cocktail party inquiries: “What do you do for work?” or “Tell me about your hobbies.” Unless already provided the structure of an interview or a game, I doubt I’d ever hear all four answers from a single person. Maybe two. Probably just a partial one. And how much do you learn about a person after listening to the tetrad?

These four prompts are not for everyone— I’ve seen some strong reactions to the concept. The idea of death, even the word itself, can make folks uncomfortable. A whole conversation based around it could be like pulling teeth. So, they’ll leave these prompts unaddressed for now. I do hope that those people would want to hear someone else’s interview, though. It’s a rare thing to be a fly on the wall while someone opens their deepest thoughts about what they want to experience before they go, and what kind of world they want to leave behind. Then, at least, the seed is planted and their unique perspectives on the four prompts can come to light at the right time.

It’s my sincere hope that On Death shows the world how interesting its inhabitants are, and causes folks to think and talk about the difficult things. A lofty goal, but I’ll start small and together we’ll see where we end up. Until then, I have neat people to interview!

5 thoughts on “On Death (or: Life, as told through four prompts)

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