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The end-of-life checklist

Let’s find the junctures where people already think about their future and make it easy to bring end-of-life plans into those discussions.

Photo of Emily Levitt

Written by

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

This checklist is for everyone who’s ever applied for a driver’s license, had a baby, opened a bank account or anything else that sounds grown-up. This list isn’t meant to sound exclusive: it should be as broad as possible, including all of the sites and situations where we find ourselves making big decisions about our futures. Wherever these decisions and steps occur, you get a copy of the checklist, helping to integrate conversations about your mortality into other big life events.

Imagine going to the courthouse, bank, or hospital for one of the life events that we associate with being a grown-up. Amongst the pile of paperwork you receive from the clerk, you’re handed yet another sheet of paper. Perhaps you’ve seen it before. In that case, it should already be familiar to you. It’s the end-of-life checklist: a list of generic questions for you to fill out in your own time (Burial, cremation, or an alternative? Do you want a DNR? Who should have power of attorney if something happens? What kind of finances should you set aside to provide ahead of time?). Or not…you’ll see this list again the next time you go to the social security office, get a marriage license, register a birth certificate, renew your license. Eventually the questions will become so familiar that you already know them just from glancing at the sheet of paper. Your responses become like second nature.


Checklists pervade all aspects of life in the modern world. They’re familiar tools, and their familiarity can make us feel comfortable discussing topics that we might otherwise avoid. More than a list of questions that require answers, this checklist is to get you and your loved ones talking. One of the worst things about grief is all of the decisions that rain down in one felt swoop. Let’s think about those answers now when you’re making your other life plans, before the stakes get too high.


The first steps of this project are to identify the actions that we associate with the world of the grown-up in our society, and to isolate where those actions take place. This varies from group to group and person to person, so thinking broadly is paramount. The second step is to come up with questions for the checklist. These questions have a difficult task: they have to prompt thought and discussion, but they also have to frame the end of our lives as something comprehensible—the topic needs to come across as prosaic and provocative at the same time.

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

My experiment has two parts. First I would pick an initial site (a courthouse, a DMV) where I would conduct exit surveys to determine if people would have read any extra paperwork that they were given. Then I would lead a focus group amongst close friends where I would hand out a prototype of the end-of-life checklist. With semi-structured topic guidelines, I would track the conversations that emerged in general as well as identifying which parts of the checklist provoked the most discussion.

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

First of all, tell me your stories about being an adult. When did you first feel like a grown-up, and where? This will help me to identify where the checklist should be distributed.

Secondly, what are the big issues that we often leave till the last minute, compounding the grief of our loved ones? What simple questions would prompt us to think about those issues earlier? This information will help me build a basic framework to guide these difficult thoughts and discussions.

Tell us about your work experience:

I’m a PhD anthropologist dedicated to using social and cultural diversity to inspire innovation.

This idea emerged from

  • An Individual

Inspired by (1)

Mortality Coach

This inspired (1)

Death plan

10 comments

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Photo of Herald Ureña
Team

When we check or not check that organ donor box on the back of our American drivers license we interact with death early on. What I like about your post is that it could take opportunity from minute moments to fulfill a important choice. Small incremental steps can add up to a checklist over time. Like Katherine Hill I could see your concept applied to K12 or sports settings also

Photo of Emily Levitt
Team

That's true! Joining your first sports team (or of course getting your first stitches). That presents the interesting question of what is the right age for a child or young adult to begin encountering this checklist and this conversation on their own. You're right that it would be best done 'incrementally' rather than only at the Big Steps. 

Photo of Katherine Hill
Team

Emily,

This idea caught my attention because of the subtitle- "let's find the juncture where people already think about their future and make it easy...". It made me think about the time in a young adult's life when they feel young enough to view death as light years away but informed enough to have a general idea of their end of life wishes. Tapping into this unique time of life might be an incredibly impactful strategy. While viewing death as far off, these young adults might perceive less weight to their decisions and feel enabled to make sound choices/plans for their future. 

Great idea and decently easy to scale at first. Can you tell us more about what you see happening after the focus group you detail above? 

Photo of Emily Levitt
Team

That's exactly right: it's important to get people thinking about these issues at that crucial time in their lives when they start to think about the book-ends of a life cycle.

I would use the focus group to find the most productive set of questions to include on a checklist. The next steps would be to come up with a well-designed, simple and eye-catching prototype. After that, I would tackle the question of how to get this checklist into the appropriate spaces. That would require some good communication and perseverance, I imagine. 

Photo of Katherine Hill
Team

This is great!

As I brainstorm further- I'd like to also suggest providing the checklists to young adults as their grandparents face difficult end of life decisions. All too often, young adults witness their parents struggling to care for grandparents and make important decisions. The young adult swears they won't let their parents or themselves make the same mistakes in failing to appropriately plan for end of life. But, time gets away and actual decisions are often postponed. Posing questions to a young adult while witnessing older generations grapple to make particular decisions might trigger true action/change. 

Photo of Emily Levitt
Team

Your comment has got me thinking how the questions and discussions would change as people age.  What are the unknowns that seem scariest at the different stages of our lives, and what questions get people thining about them? That would be worth researching.

Photo of Nancy Shapiro Rapport
Team

This is an interesting idea, Emily. What I like most about it is that it normalizes conversation about end of life. I agree with you, the familiarity of seeing and answering such questions makes it not so delicate a topic. 

Photo of Emily Levitt
Team

I'm glad you agree. 'Delicate' is a good word for the way most people approach this topic. We need to remember that thinking through these issues itself won't--or at least shouldn't--do any damage.

Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

Hi Emily.  I like your idea and think it has lots of potential to bring awareness and action!
I am thinking about your question - "When did I first feel like a grown up and where?"  I think it really hit me when I had my first job after college and rented an apartment.  Paying rent, paying taxes, having my own health insurance, paying for things with money I earned - this was a key experience in terms of becoming an adult.  There are other experiences where I was told I was an adult but taking care of oneself economically I think was big for me.  How about including the checklist with the tax forms one completes when starting a job?  
Another thought is that I first thought about becoming an adult when I had a bat mitzvah.  As per that ritual that is when I became one.  For me it was more a moment to think about transitions and time, but I didn't really feel like an adult.  I think that might be a great time for clergy to become involved in this conversation, at least as a vehicle to present the checklist to parents.  Rituals around lifecycle might be good times to present the checklist to parents as they are embracing their family life.  Might they be reminded that planning for a good death, and planning for family (making a will) are important tasks and are part of caring for others?  What do you think?

Photo of Emily Levitt
Team

Death and taxes indeed. Can't think of a better (or worse) example of adulthood!

Your suggestion about incorporating this discussion into religious events is interesting. Originally I deliberately avoided that domain, thinking that this new approach was meant to facilitate these conversations in lieu of the religious counseling that people probably used to get more often. But maybe it's better to see it as complementary to that domain instead. There really is no better venue or set of experts to help people think about this topic than places of worship and the clergy who work there.