By Ralph White
In March of 1995 the Open Center had been in operation for a little more than a decade and was looking to expand its programming beyond the weekend workshops, courses, lectures and performances that had been the heart of its work up to that point. The time seemed right to produce our first major conference and select a profound and widely significant theme.
Our friends at the newly established Tibet House were also looking to create a conference. Robert Thurman had just published a new translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Jackie Onassis’ decision to die with dignity without gratuitous medical intervention was making front page news. Consequently, the Open Center and Tibet House decided to combine forces and produce a major event around the theme of death and dying.
Little did we know how successful it would be. The very week that the conference brochures began to land in people’s mailboxes across the country, How We Die, a book by one of our major speakers, Sherwin Nuland, hit Number One on the New York Times best seller lists. And before a month or two had gone by we had sold out the whole event at a the Crowne Plaza Hotel in mid town Manhattan with 700 participants. Somehow we had caught the wave of the zeitgeist at the perfect moment. We didn’t know exactly who our audience would be and were delighted when we found that the vast majority of our participants were professionals in the dying field – hospice nurses, cancer doctors, bereavement counselors, social workers, chaplains and more.
Twenty three years later, the Open Center contains the Art of Dying Institute that offers in-depth trainings in integrative thanatology, and continues to produce the conferences on a bi-annual basis. The Institute also offers multiple smaller programs that address the continuing emergence of more holistic approaches to this deepest of all mysteries. To our great surprise, we have learned that conferences on dying turn out to be among the most life enhancing events we have ever created, and among the most meaningful. And we remain grateful that we took that chance back in 1995 to address a topic that is becoming less taboo in American culture with each passing year, to the great benefit of all.