Health Matters: Entrepreneur wants to open up the conversation about death

Interview by LJ Anderson
Mercury News

Anne Bonaparte keeps a sign on her desk that reads “Communicate.” It serves as a daily reminder of her late father, who kept the same sign on his desk throughout his life. It’s also a visible reminder of her father’s core value, communication, and one whose importance has been passed on to his daughter.

In part, as a result of her father’s legacy, Bonaparte has spent her professional life team-building and finding ways to communicate effectively. No topic is off-limits to Bonaparte, so it is not surprising that she is bringing what she describes as “our last taboo” — death — into the open as well.

Bonaparte is founder of DeathWise® (, a website with resources designed to help individuals and their loved ones better prepare for death. Palo Alto-born Bonaparte is also an experienced technology executive who has founded and led several companies. She is CEO and president of Mountain View-based Xora, Inc., and has a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University and an MBA from Harvard University.

Q: What is DeathWise, and what prompted you to start it?

A: Our mission is to change the conversation about death and dying in America to prevent the unintended consequences — medical, financial and emotional — of our cultural reluctance to deal with end-of-life issues. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit public charity, and we offer free access to unbiased information and practical planning tools.

Since death is one of the last taboos in America, many people are not having important conversations and completing the planning that would help them and their family at the time of this inevitable experience. Ignoring death or denying its existence doesn’t make it go away. When death does come, being unprepared can make the experience a lot more challenging, both for ourselves and for those we leave behind.

We launched DeathWise® with donations from individuals in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. I believe this national support for our efforts reflects a growing concern that there’s not a lot out there for people who wish to tackle this topic.

Q: What does being “DeathWise” mean to you, and how do you hope to equip people?

A: Becoming DeathWise® means becoming wiser about how to prepare for our own death and how to deal with the death of a friend or family member. We help people learn about, talk about, and make decisions about the many issues related to death. Our belief is that once you’ve prepared for death, you may even feel a new sense of freedom, and a resolve to live every day to the fullest.

On our website, we provide materials to help address the core issues: organizing financial records; making health-care decisions; deciding on care of the body; planning a funeral or memorial service; and getting emotional support.

We provide basic information, state-by-state resource directories for advance directives and organ donations, as well as magazine articles and blog conversations to give people insight into how others are dealing with the challenging issues around death and dying.

An online planning tool is available to make your own end-of-life wishes clear and help your family and friends with their pre-planning. Taking these steps to document your wishes and placing them in a safe and accessible place will help ensure your wishes are met and that your family does not have to wonder or worry about what you wanted.

Q: What elements are currently missing in our conversation about death and dying?

A: I am fascinated with why death has become taboo in America, given that it is a universal experience. We all know someone who has died, and we will all die eventually. But, in my lifetime, it has also been interesting to see how Americans have tackled other formerly taboo topics with very positive results.

The word “cancer” used to be said in hushed words, especially when referring to breast cancer. Now we see throngs of people running, walking and committed to the cure with the result of increased medical research and public education. And there are other examples — divorce, depression, AIDS — these are all topics that used to be taboo in our society and aren’t so much anymore, and we’re better off for it. Clearly, without dialog, none of this would have happened.

So, it is not so much that there are specific elements that are missing in the conversation about death and dying. It is more that the topic itself is taboo and there’s been no comprehensive “go-to” place on the Web to get the whole picture. I believe DeathWise® changes that.

Q: Anecdotally, what areas within the scope of death and dying are people least prepared to face?

A: We all approach death and dying differently. For some, the practical decisions related to finances, the body, or funeral and memorial service are easier to tackle. For others, the emotional and health topics get attention, and the practical steps are ignored.

For all of us, though, when an unexpected death or diagnosis happens, we’re often caught unprepared. And once you’re in a crisis situation, it’s extra challenging to think through the choices and considerations for this ultimate transition. So we encourage people to put some attention now on the topic of death and dying, and to sort through their personal beliefs and wishes. Our goal is for everyone to become a little bit more DeathWise.

LJ Anderson writes on health. She can be reached at or at