Thousands gather at readings, dinners and theaters to discuss life — and death

Cancer patient Grace Livingston savors a living mandala she helped create at the Oct. 25 opening event for the Reimagine End of Life festival. Photo: Daphne White

“Tell me,” asked poet Mary Oliver, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

The Reimagine End of Life festival now underway in the Bay Area offers anyone who has ever pondered this question an opportunity to engage with it, in community with others. For the next seven days, until Nov. 3, there will be 350 wildly creative events that will explore both life and death through intimate communal conversations; theatrical events; music; art; beer tastings; dance; dinners; death cafes; dim sum and more. Fifty-five of the events are in the East Bay, and nine are in Berkeley. 

“By re-imagining death, I believe we can re-imagine life,” said Brad Wolfe, the festival founder and executive director. “Part of it is about confronting a taboo, which feels liberating.” But much of it, Wolfe added, is about creating connection and meaning in the present moment — and not waiting until someone has died to create community and recognize the love that was there. “What would happen in our society if people got to connect more meaningfully while we are still alive — and not just at a memorial service?” he asked.

“I have spent many years trying to bring people together,” said Wolfe. “I found out that telling people to love each other and celebrate life doesn’t work. But death has the power to connect us all. Confronting mortality inspires people to live more fully.” 


Death also connects people across races, cultures and ages, Wolfe said. “For at least the length of this festival, we can take time to connect with each other,” he said. “If we can tackle death together, what can’t we tackle?” 

Reimagine has four major focuses: preparation for death; a remembrance of those who have died; cultivating a sense of wonder; and figuring out how to live more fully, given that our death is imminent. The festival is extremely popular and some events are already sold out. Even though the majority of events are free, it’s important to RSVP and secure a spot on-line before going to any event (including the free ones). Last year, 10,000 people attended some part of the festival.

Brad Wolfe sings an original song as Amy Burkman creates a painting at a recent event. Photo by Daphne White.

Subterranean worlds

Wolfe has tapped into a subterranean river of people and activities centered on death, dying and mortality. This is a community that has been growing exponentially over the past five or 10 years, said John Byrne Barry, an author. “It’s like those bikers speeding down the hills in Marin, except this is a hidden community that you don’t see out in the open,” he said. 

Barry discovered this community after his mother died last year and he began writing a novel called When I Killed My Father: An Assisted Suicide Family Thriller.” I started interviewing people about end of life issues, and found out there is a huge end-of-life space I never knew existed,” Barry said. He will be giving a talk about his book on Nov. 2.

Dan Schifrin, a Berkeley writer and playwright, entered the conversation when his grandmother died. “As we have grown further and further away from nature and the cycles of nature, it seems to surprise us, somehow, when people die,” he said. “So having these conversations actually gives us a sense of empowerment. We feel a sense of relief when we face what we are afraid of.”

Schifrin’s play, Sweet & Sour is an “existential family comedy” that will be performed over dinner at the Berkeley JCC on Tuesday evening. The audience will eat the same food as the actors, and discuss the issues raised by the play during intermission. Following the play, Schifrin will be in conversation with Dr. Jessica Zitter about storytelling and ritual around end-of-life issues. Zitter is a critical and palliative care specialist, and the best-selling author of Extreme Measures.

Another Berkeley event on Oct. 30 is called What They Left Behind: A Night of Storytelling. Participants are asked to bring an object left behind by a loved one and tell a short story about it. “The object provides a doorway into our memories and our values,” said Laura Turbow, who will be leading the event at Temple Beth-El at 1301 Oxford St. along with Rachel Friedman. “To go out on a Wednesday evening and do something emotional, that’s not for the weak,” Turbow said. “It’s for people who are looking to be provoked, to be poked. It’s not easy, talking about some of these things — it’s heartbreaking. But getting them on the table, looking at them and examining them, helps us grow.”

And for a complete change of pace, there is Crafting Your Narrative Happy Hour, which will take place on Wednesday evening at Fieldwork Brewing at 1160 Sixth St. “I’ve been working in the end of life education and advocacy space for a while now,” said Stefanie Elkins, a continuum of care coach. “I am also passionate about beer, so I am combining my two passions. This will be like a speed networking event, but we will be talking about a kind of taboo topic using a ‘death deck’.”

Other Berkeley festival events include Embracing the Journey: End of Life Resource Fair, What’s Different About LGBTQ+ End of Life?, Life, Death & Creativity, Talk: Dying Well with Plant Medicine and Ancestral Lineage Healing Daylong Workshop.

There are hundreds of other events in Oakland, San Francisco and other locations. As a result, the festival website and choices can be somewhat overwhelming to navigate. “Life and death are messy,” Wolfe said.

Reimagine is not even two years old but has been growing very quickly. Wolfe recently added a New York City festival which ended up being even bigger than San Francisco’s, and he plans to expand to other cities. This year, there will be a Resources section on the website after the events are over, so people can connect with people and ideas throughout the year.

Grace Livingston and artist Day Schildkret take apart the mandala they created as a symbol of impermanence. Photo by Daphne White.

“We want to showcase all the creativity of people in this community,” Wolfe said. “We want to show the diversity and the sense of how much energy is around this issue. Death is overwhelming. Life is overwhelming. But if you dig in deeper, look at all the beautiful things that come up.”