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Death in the movies

A look at the way death is treated in the creative domain and how it could be used to help real people

Photo of Dina Momtaz
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Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine the end-of-life experience?

This idea is designed to bring the end-of-life to the rest of life. It's about bringing peace to life, so that we don't have to seek it at the end-of-life.

One of the most memorable deaths I've seen in the movies is that of Spock, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He died because "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few". In "The Search for Spock", he was resurrected and his crewmates made a trip half-way across the galaxy to save him from a planet on the verge of destruction.

In "Heart and Souls", four spirits spend 25 years stuck on earth, and then have a week to fix the unresolved issues in their lives as well as the life of the boy they were attached to. Only once they've appeased themselves and their still-living loved ones, are they finally able to take the trip to the next life.

Stephen King's The Green Mile is about a loving giant, John Coffey, wrongly convicted and without a bad bone in his body. He is executed, but not before correcting every injustice that is inflicted in the prison around him.

Hollywood can't kill a character off without tying off their loose ends. However, as is the case with most entertainment Hollywood dishes out for us, it's really a reflection of our own condition. We feel that dying isn't fair unless we've made peace with ourselves and with those around us - we've put our world right.

The end-of-life experience, to me, is really therefore not about dying so much as it is about living. In the context of the human condition, the physical reality of dying is almost inconsequential, but the question of improving the end-of-life experience is about how the person who is approaching the end of their life can make peace, and how those who are affected by the death can make their peace as well.

Few, if any of us will be able to set right our entire world in the way Hollywood manages to do incredibly well. Even those of us who feel completely at peace with ourselves would probably have something we would want to fix if we were run over by a bus tomorrow - A bucket list for the soul. A service which would take care of our bucket list for the soul could help us be more at peace with ourselves in life, remind us of the important things in good health, help those around us reach closure after our passing, and give us the secure knowledge that the things we care about fixing will still be addressed after we're gone. More importantly though, a service like this would bring the end-of-life to the rest of life. If at any point we feel as if we have too many loose ends to go peacefully, we could use the service to start working through them at any point. This has opportunities for dealing with depression as well, helping even more before the end-of-life.

Death is inevitable, but if Hollywood is anything to go by, death is just a happy ending that precipitates a celebration of life by those who witnessed it.

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

A volunteer run service to fulfil the mental needs of weak, immobile, or terminally ill people, as well as the needs of those who have relationships with them could be used to find out what kinds of things people nominate as being important to their sense of peace. This information could be used to begin to build a service that would help people achieve some of the most important things to them before they reach the end of their life.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

This idea would really need an eclectic set of skills. People who like to make people happy would need to join people who are "people people". Experts in healthcare would need to have their input and business people would need to add a business perspective to the idea. Technologists would need to work together with these to find a way of recording, storing, handling and helping execute people's loose ends.

Tell us about your work experience:

I'm a HR professional.

This idea emerged from

  • An Individual


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Photo of James Senior

Hi Dina, thanks for your post. There are a couple of threads in here that I wanted to respond to.

The first is the idea that our understanding of dying is informed by mediated cultural products like movies, tv shows and online media. Definitely! Also our feelings and emotions around end-of-life are mediated as well. When an imaginary character in a popular show dies (say Hodor in "Game of Thrones"), do we feel real loss, or simulated loss? Is it any different online, than when we are in a theatre? Why is there a massive cultural outpouring? How do cultural products structure our public conversations about death?

This is an interesting tension online where the dialogue and exchange is happening. Can you tell us more about how you think media and death are related? Are there any writers who have explored this problem that we might be able to read together? Alain de Botton jumps to mind.

The second idea I liked was kind of hidden in your "lightweight experience" response - which is User Research. You have the seed of an idea to provide some sort of service around wish fulfillment at end-of-life, but you aren't sure yet how to frame it, and so you suggest that you gather information, and then "This information could be used to begin to build a service". Deepening understanding of the user groups, and going into that research with an open mind, rather than to justify a specific service you have already imagined, is a really great way to find out what people really need/want, rather than what we speculate as designers. However, in the format of this challenge, how could you structure this research? What are your research objectives beyond "find out more"? 

Photo of Shane Zhao

Love this provocation James! The light-weight experiment that Dina mentioned really is a great User Research exercise that can lead to a service that we haven't even anticipated yet. This is a great prompt for us to first deepen our understanding patients' needs first before we launch too quickly into the design of an imagined idea. 

Dina, great thought-starter and love the references to Spock and 25 souls! Have you checked out Alberto Minelli 's idea BucketList ?

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