TED Talks: New Ways to Think About Death

Most people don’t like to think about dying. We’d rather focus our energy on the people and the things we love, happy times, and things that bring us joy. But, as we all know, death is inevitable, and shouldn’t be ignored. Despite what most think,these conversations don’t have to be sad and depressing. They can be positive and thought-provoking. As an example, “death” has recently been the focus of a TED Talks series titled, “New Ways to Think About Death.”

TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less) given by thought leaders in their field. TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues . . . including death — in more than 100 languages. 

The following are descriptions and links to TED speakers who offer insights to help us face death more thoughtfully and with greater compassion:

Alison Killing

There’s a better way to die, and architecture can help (Duration: 4:39)

In this short, provocative talk, architect Alison Killing looks at buildings where death and dying happen — cemeteries, hospitals, homes. The way we die is changing, and the way we build for dying … well, maybe that should too. It’s a surprisingly fascinating look at a hidden aspect of our cities, and our lives.”

Listen here.

BJ Miller

What really matters at the end of life (Duration: 19:07)

At the end of our lives, what do we most wish for? For many, it’s simply comfort, respect, love. BJ Miller is a hospice and palliative medicine physician who thinks deeply about how to create a dignified, graceful end of life for his patients. Take the time to savor this moving talk, which asks big questions about how we think on death and honor life.”

Listen here.

Kelli Swazey (Duration: 13:54)

Life that doesn’t end with death (Duration: 13:54)

“In Tana Toraja, weddings and births aren’t the social gatherings that knit society together. In this part of Indonesia, big, raucous funerals are at the center of social life. Anthropologist Kelli Swazey takes a look at this culture, in which the bodies of dead relatives are cared for years after they have passed away — because relationships with loved ones don’t simply end when breathing does.”

Listen here.

Candy Chang

Before I die I want to … (Duration: 6:20)

“In her New Orleans neighborhood, artist and TED Fellow Candy Chang turned an abandoned house into a giant chalkboard asking a fill-in-the-blank question: “Before I die I want to ___.” Her neighbors’ answers — surprising, poignant, funny — became an unexpected mirror for the community. (What’s your answer?)”

Listen here.  

Peter Saul

Let’s talk about dying (Duration: 13:19)

“We can’t control if we’ll die, but we can “occupy death,” in the words of Peter Saul, an emergency doctor. He asks us to think about the end of our lives — and to question the modern model of slow, intubated death in hospital. Two big questions can help you start this tough conversation.”

Listen here.

Matthew O’Reilly

“Am I dying?” The honest answer (Duration: 5:33)

“Matthew O’Reilly is a veteran emergency medical technician on Long Island, New York. In this talk, O’Reilly describes what happens next when a gravely hurt patient asks him: “Am I going to die?””

Listen here.

Amanda Bennett

We need a heroic narrative for death (Duration: 15:24)

“Amanda Bennett and her husband were passionate and full of life all throughout their lives together — and up until the final days, too. Bennett gives a sweet yet powerful talk on why, for the loved ones of the dying, having hope for a happy ending shouldn’t warrant a diagnosis of “denial.” She calls for a more heroic narrative for death — to match the ones we have in life.”

Listen here.

Judy MacDonald Johnston

Prepare for a good end of life (Duration: 6:03)

“Thinking about death is frightening, but planning ahead is practical and leaves more room for peace of mind in our final days. In a solemn, thoughtful talk, Judy MacDonald Johnston shares 5 practices for planning for a good end of life.”

Listen here.

Jae Rhim Lee

My mushroom burial suit (Duration: 7:30)

“Here’s a powerful provocation from artist Jae Rhim Lee. Can we commit our bodies to a cleaner, greener Earth, even after death? Naturally — using a special burial suit seeded with pollution-gobbling mushrooms.”

Listen here.

I hope these talks gave you some new perspectives about death and dying. And, hopefully, you can even use them to spark conversations with your loved ones. For more resources on discussing death and dying with your family, please see our blog posts, Facing the Elephant in the RoomOvercoming the Fear of DeathThe End-Of-Life Conversation: What if it NEVER happens?, and Death Cafés Present a Comfortable Way to Talk about Death.

How would you finish this sentence? “The end-of-life care I would want is …”

“I don’t know” or “I don’t want to talk about it,” are how most people fill in the blanks to this statement. But, please give this some thought: What if you became incapacitated and could no longer speak for yourself? Would you want all possible measures taken to save your life? To be in a hospital or at home? Surrounded by family and friends? Once you’ve decided, now imagine arriving at an emergency room unable to speak or tell anyone what you want. In this instance, if you didn’t have the conversation or complete your Advance Medical Directive, you are going to wish that you had!

Did you know that at least half of those 65 and older ending up at the hospital are unable to speak for themselves? Don’t be one of these people; make sure your wishes are known. First, have the conversation. Then, if you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning, and Incapacity Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, call us to make an appointment for a consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888

Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435

Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041

DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797


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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.