“When I tell someone for the first time that I host a podcast on death, a funny thing happens,” D.S. Moss, host of the death-centric podcast The Adventures of Memento Mori, told me via email. He starts to count, but “before I can get to three, they lean in close to me and begin to tell me a personal story of death.”
Everyone has a story about death. You included. Me included. And yet, despite being the only thing we all know will happen with absolute certainty, death is often seen as a taboo topic. “Or as I came to find out, a topic that needs permission to begin,” Moss said. “Once the instigation barrier has been removed, people actually like talking about it.”
Moss runs a production company that makes marketing documentaries during the day. For his lighter fare side-hustle, he travels the country talking to people about death. (Full disclosure: I used to work for said podcast.) I interviewed him about what he’s learned in his tenure tackling a grim but universal topic, and how his adventures and the people he’s spoken to—ranging from leaders in the transhumanism movement and people who are reinventing the way burials look to experts on why we should finalize our death plans way before we think we should—have changed his outlook on life.
“The practice of meditating on my death has been an incredibly powerful tool to realize that about 85 percent of the ‘stuff’ that consumed my emotional and mental energy is either made up narrative or just not worth my time,” he said. “This isn’t to say I’m comfortable with dying because I do want to live and now I’m more deliberately doing so.” And while many of us ponder our deaths privately, our imminent demise isn’t usually the stuff of casual dinner conversations. The right context is everything though, and permission to speak about a not-oft-spoken-about topic can be powerful.
And there’s a growing movement built around this very thing. Organizations like Death Over Dinner and the Zen Hospice Project are creating the context for life-affirming conversations about death and dying (and in the case of the Zen Hospice Project, changing the way we actually die).
Death Over Dinner has held more than 100,000 dinners in 30 countries to talk about death, founder Michael Hebb wrote for Thrive Global, noting, “It may seem paradoxical, but talking about death can give us an immediate and renewed vitality.” He points to a study that found talking about death can make us funnier, noting, “We are magnetically drawn to this topic, not because we are morbid, but simply because we are curious human beings.”
But talking about death all day hasn’t made Moss more comfortable with the idea of dying—just as it hasn’t made him any more equipped to deal with loss than those of us who don’t spend our days interrogating our existence. Losing loved ones is “still a painful and all-too-often befuddling experience,” he said. “I have, however, changed how I emotionally express the death of others.”
Being able to share grief is not easy. But Moss notes his path to the topic is not based on personal tragedy. “I have, however, suffered loss, the type of loss that fundamentally changes who you are and how you see the world. But that’s not the catalyst nor point of this show.”
The point, in large part, is to create a context for talking about death and, importantly, expand the conversation to include other things besides the inevitable grief that accompanies loss. “The mystery, science, faith and culture around death are conversations wanting to be had,” he said.
“Because of the podcast I don’t covet my grief or hide it as much as I once did. I come from a long line of men who don’t express emotion. Grunts, head nods and winks were the three communication signs used to express the entire spectrum of emotions growing up. Compound that with five years in the Marine Corps where, for good reason, we were taught to suppress,” he said.
And part of that conversation is about how to live knowing we will die. That includes practical things, like taking steps to reduce anxiety around end-of-life care. It’s “never too early to discuss what your wishes are,” he said. And while drafting a will now might seem somber, it’s actually a way to help “make the decisions for yourself to give peace of mind to your family should something happen.”
But that conversation also includes more poetic ways of living knowing we’re not immortal (yet).
“Memento Mori is Latin for being mindful that you will die, and when applied and practiced on a daily basis, that mindfulness shows up in how you live,” he said. For him, that mindfulness has been most present in letting go of attachments, though he acknowledges, “this is all dangerously close to cliche.” That means “things like letting go of ego pursuits or how I’ve defined success up until now, letting go of romantic narratives and social narratives.”
Moss emphasized that despite his tenure hosting the show, he believes no one is an expert on this subject.
What he does do better than most of us, perhaps, is view the complexities of daily life in the context of our imminent demise. And that doesn’t (seem to, at least) make him morbid, nor trapped in some Camus-tinged existential nightmare. Rather, by familiarizing himself with a topic we so often avoid, he’s been able to view his time alive more mindfully, and has learned that if you can provide the right context, there are people ready and willing to talk to you about their experience with death. “One of the unexpected outcomes of hosting a show on the topic is that people, most of whom I don’t know or don’t know well, want to share their stories and their pain with me. I don’t offer any tidy advice and I certainly have nothing profound to say. What I find is that people in their own way and in their own time just want to talk about it,” he said. “Myself included.”