Death Talk Is Cool At This Festival : Shots - Health News How to make thinking about death less somber? Hold a festival! Indianapolis did. Through art, film and book talks, residents explored everything from bucket lists to advance directives and cremation.
NPR logo

Death Talk Is Cool At This Festival

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Death Talk Is Cool At This Festival

Death Talk Is Cool At This Festival

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It is hard to talk about death. But in Indianapolis, a group of medical professionals is trying to get the conversation going in a different kind of way. The Before I Die Festival is a series of events around the city meant to get residents thinking about everything from advance directives to burial plans. Jake Harper of Side Effects Public Media has the story.

JAKE HARPER, BYLINE: The Before I Die Festival started for me where people are already dead, at a crematorium.

It's like implants and stuff?


HARPER: Eddie Beagles is vice president at Flanner and Buchanan, which runs funeral homes in the Indianapolis area. He showed my tour group a pile of metal pieces.

EDDIE BEAGLES: This is probably an artificial hip, ball socket here.

HARPER: When everything else burns, this is what's left behind, the ashes. You can have your family members scatter them somewhere. Or if you want your remains to stick around...

EDDIE BEAGLES: Really, when it comes to cremation, there's always somebody coming up with a million-dollar idea. It's just a matter of getting it out onto the market. So if you think of it, they can do it.

HARPER: There are all kinds of urns - some that are biodegradable, others that you keep forever. You can put ashes into jewelry or furniture. You can even turn your ashes into a diamond.

EDDIE BEAGLES: It's not an inexpensive process by any means. I think the last time I had a family inquire about it, it was about $10,000.

HARPER: Whoa. OK, so I don't think I'll decide to become a diamond. But there are a lot of other decisions I do need to make. And that's the point of this festival. On the first warm, sunny weekend of the year, organizers were asking people to think about something that can be kind of gloomy, the end of their lives.

And hundreds of people actually showed up for the 22 events held at different spots around the city, such as a book discussion at the library and a film screening at Marion University. Later in the day, about 20 middle-aged people were sipping coffee in a gallery full of death-related art. They recounted stories of loved ones they had lost during what's known as a death cafe.

LUCIA WOCIAL: It's meant to be a safe space, a nonjudgmental space. No agenda. We're not selling anything. We're not pushing anything.

HARPER: Lucia Wocial is a nurse ethicist, and putting on this festival was her idea. She says death used to be simple. But with modern medicine...

WOCIAL: You're probably not just going to drop dead one day. You and your family, whether it's you or a family member, will be faced with an opportunity to make a decision about - wow, I could undergo this treatment. I could have that surgery. I could have all of these things. I mean, who knew dying was so complicated?

HARPER: Complicated, and it can be costly. Jason Eberl is a medical ethicist who spoke at the festival.

JASON EBERL: People themselves in their advance directive will say, look, I don't want to drain my kids' college savings or my wife's retirement account in order to keep me alive another two months to go through one more round of chemo when there's only a 15 percent chance of remission. No, I'm not going to do that to them.

HARPER: An advance directive is a legal document that says how far you want doctors to go to save you if you can no longer speak for yourself. Eberl says a lot of people don't fill these out because they don't know they can or they worry they're limiting their options.

EBERL: But my mom had advance directive. And she wanted everything done. So she had advance directive in order to say I want everything done. So I think advance directives are just a great way just for people to be aware of what your wishes are.

HARPER: My last stop of the weekend was a tour through a huge, historic cemetery. The tour leader asked us to think about what we want to accomplish before we get to the end. People wrote their answers on a blackboard, the Before I Die wall.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I wrote that before I die, I want to finally see "Star Wars."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: See an active volcano.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Before I die, I want to have no - zero regrets.


HARPER: I couldn't quite figure out what to write on the wall. But I'm thinking about it a lot harder now. For NPR News, I'm Jake Harper in Indianapolis.


MARTIN: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR Side Effects Public Media and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.