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Rehearsal Dinner; updated 2 Aug 2016

At funerals are heard some of the most poignant expressions of love, faith, hope, and memory. Our loved ones shouldn’t miss out on that.

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

For families who want to host a send-off for their loved one but don't know what would be appropriate, this kind of gathering is respectable and intimate. Immediate family and close friends can come together to recognize and uplift the Guest of Honor with stories, songs, sentiments, and beliefs just as they would after their loved one has passed.

Literary Inspiration: The Fault in Our Stars and Tuesdays with Morrie

Rituals, Customs and Cultural Values Ground Us in Life

Like weddings have rehearsal dinners where we anticipate the couples' union and take advantage of those precious moments before the turning point in their lives, we should host a rehearsal dinner for those about to leave mortality behind. Both the living and the dying struggle to express their parting wishes and emotions at the end of life, and a funeral provides loved ones with the ultimate emotional release and closure, what Morgan Robison calls the “opportunity to emotionally compartmentalize dealing with death.” Wouldn’t this be the best kind of send-off a person could ask for? As they are about to be reunited with their ancestors, we can give them a preview of how they will be missed by those still living. Let them be present for the words that will be spoken at their funeral. Let them hear the songs that will be sung and feel the spirit of love and family around them before they pass. Let them know what they mean to us and what their legacy will be.

Not For Everyone

This idea is hard, and the circumstances of death are unique to each person. Preparing for such a celebration could be physically or emotionally overwhelming to the dying person or their family. Timing is also a concern. As Chris Lee pointed out, “those final days too often are marked by delirium, discomfort, and/or detachment of the individual from his/her social circles.” That being said, there is definitely a place for the rehearsal dinner. Many families struggle with feelings of guilt or inability to carry on with life because a loved one is close to death for a long period of time. Although this gathering may be premature to death, it could also provide closure sooner and, if need be, an opportunity to shift care taking responsibility.

It Takes a Village

Starting a new tradition of funeral rehearsal dinners can bring closure to everyone involved and allow them to focus on the culmination of lived experience rather than letting it fade. In this effort, I envision the collaboration of hospitals, nursing homes, hospice, party planners, and family counselors. Hospitals could host in a reception hall – something small, but as aesthetically pleasing as possible, warm, with artwork and windows, and dining or sitting options. Hospitals could even cater if they chose. There would be medical technology accessible but not very visible. I think this could go a long way in not only increasing overall patient satisfaction for hospitals whose primary consumers are towards the end of life, but it would also improve the overall perception of hospitals as places that don't just take the sick but welcome people with malady along with their families. Yoko K. calls this the shift from hospitals as “disease control centers” to places of wellness.

Mental health is a big part of the end of life experience. An idea that is quickly gaining ground in DC is the “Death Doula.” Typically, a doula is like a midwife or birthing coach – helping mothers by giving emotional support and empathy during the birth process. A death doula is just at the opposite end of life. They smooth the transition for individuals and their families through active presence. Read more in this article by the Washington Post. I think that this concept would wonderfully coincide in the celebration of life through a rehearsal dinner.

Meeting the Expectation

Hospitals typically have brochures to provide information to patients who are getting their affairs in order. One of the first steps in this project would be to advertise ideas and services for planning a rehearsal dinner. This way, hospitals can be involved but not immediately invested and can outsource rehearsal dinner preparations to the community.

Another simple implementation at the start of this project would be a toolkit for someone considering a rehearsal dinner - a checklist of sorts that would help the participants create a personalized, comfortable, and happy event. This would include physical planning of location, organizer, food, music, guests, and medical intervention, but would also include emotional planning. Chelsea Ducharme suggested, “How the person being celebrated can prepare for the day, as in being emotionally open and ready for what they may hear.” “A comfort level inventory: avoiding excessive sadness and tears.”

Virtual Space

We already have the communication technology to make an event like this successful in a virtual space. This could help with the timing issue so that people who can’t make it to the rehearsal dinner and to the funeral could opt to join via Facetime/Skype/Hangouts/etc. I think it could also help the younger generation to become invested.

User Experience Map

User Experience Map

Help from OpenIDEO

I like the name of “rehearsal dinner” because it would mean having a semblance of the funeral just as a regular rehearsal dinner goes through some of the motions for a wedding. But I've heard retirement party, pre-funeral... what would you want to call yours?

Intercultural Space

Morgan Robison wrote about the differences between Eastern and Western philosophies concerning death. These are a couple of her comments but I would love to hear more perspective on international cultures.

“Our emotions, household obligations, transportation, daily duties, bodily preparations, burials or cremations, and ceremonies are dispatched and tended to by professionals, family members, and our immediate community. We deal less with the body and its preparation, and more with emotional stresses and accommodating travel and work schedules.”

“The idea of privacy [is] very intriguing, as we desire our [loved ones’ funerals] to have high attendance rates…, but still be private and closed events where attending individuals are expected to dress, act, and uphold the family standards. We need ownership over the body, the space, the ceremony, even the road when transporting the body. [Alternatively,] the idea of multiple strangers’ bodies having funerals in the same space simultaneously [conveys] that the funeral is for the body and not for those left behind, as the dead do not require privacy.”

Tell us about your work experience:

Having worked with Sen Sound in healthcare and design, I think this is a great opportunity to combine empathetic design principles with family traditions and innovation in hospitals.

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Photo of Joanna Spoth

Hi Julia! I wanted to quickly pass along some feedback we recently received from our challenge sponsors and advisory panel: "We love that this is a celebration of living before funerals. We're curious how this might be part of a larger social movement – might there be a virtual element? We're also wondering about how timing might be a tricky piece of the "Rehearsal Dinner." Rehearsal Dinners in other contexts are the night before, or planned to be strategically right before the event itself. However, it might be hard to know when or if someone will die. Maybe there are other titles we could play around with! Your idea inspired us to think a bit more broadly around how death might be faked in order to wake up or change a perspective..."

And Alex Drane, who's on our advisory panel, loves your idea because we shouldn't save eulogies for after someone is dead!

Looking forward to seeing your idea continue to evolve in this last week of our Refinement phase.

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