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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
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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


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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

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. 

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