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THE MODERN MEMENTO MORI: Using Artistic Expression to Improve the End-of-life and Spark A Broader Social Movement; (8/7 update)

A connected bracelet + web app that helps to honor loved ones, harness personal strength, improve care and promote meaningful life.

Photo of Colin Scibetta
11 16

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

A) For those potentially nearing end-of-life and their circle of supporters: a social + clinical tool for celebrating legacies, strengthening social connections, and sharing important EOL medical info with healthcare providers B) For social influencers and healthcare practitioners: a symbol to spark discussion around EOL in the broader population C) For everyone: an artistic piece of our identity, reminding and helping us to live more fully Update 8/7/16: 2 initial use cases shown below


In art, a Memento Mori is an artistic or symbolic reminder of mortality.

"Memento mori" is a Latin phrase meaning "remember your mortality."  The concept originated from a tradition in Ancient Rome meant to keep victorious war heros from falling victim to haughtiness and delusions of grandeur.

Artistic displays representing the essence of Memento Mori have made their way across history, geography, and culture--from Christianity to Buddhism to Islam to Atheism, and are represented in literature, music, and perhaps most commonly, in jewelry.

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Given its meaning and historical significance, the modern Memento Mori concept makes for a powerful symbol and tool for the emerging EOL movement.  The elements are designed to tap into one's emotional/artistic sensibilities, thereby creating an easier way into the rational, often less appealing aspects of the end of life experience. The Memento Mori is comprised of three main elements: 1) a personalized, beaded Memento Mori bracelet 2) a digital platform that houses bead "stories" and EOL services 3) a "live wallpaper" representation of the Memento Mori for your phone's home screen.

1) The Connected Bracelet

The Memento Mori bracelet is a unisex bracelet that, stylistically, can be worn in all environments.  The bracelet is creatively "designed" by it's wearer, who personalizes the bracelet by a) selecting from an array of beads and b) bringing them to life by imbuing each with a personal story, memory, or intention, which is shared on the connected digital platform.  The bracelet is most likely digitally connected through the use of a creatively designed QR code that creates a clear linkage between the bracelet and the online extension. Core bead options, all of which are important and desirable for clinical purposes, may include the following:

Honor Beads

Honor beads are meant to celebrate the life of a person who is facing EOL or who you've already lost.  As a community forms around someone facing EOL, each person can wear a bead representing that person and use the digital platform to share stories about that bead/individual. In this way, support communities are strengthened and centralized. It allows for those remembering someone to always feel connected, both to that person and to all the others who share in that love. For those facing EOL, they can take comfort in knowing that their legacy and memory lives on with their loved ones and manifests in such a powerful way.

Strength Beads

One of the most important things a palliative care physician can learn about a patient is where they derive their strength. Generally, this is a challenging subject to broach, as it often pertains to spirituality and other traditionally "non-medical" aspects of health care.  By having people pre-identify their source of strength and represent it physically, along with the accompanying stories, it facilitates easier patient-practitioner conversation around this topic and can help lead to a much better EOL experience for all involved.

A Singular Surrogate Bead

Each person selects a bead that represents their End Of Life surrogate, i.e. the person they trust to make EOL decisions for them when/if they cannot.  In this way, wearers deepen their bond with someone else they care about.  Online, they then engage in exploring their EOL wishes.  

In a clinical or hospice setting, this bead removes ambiguity and helps EOL practitioners easily identify that all-important surrogate.

Other potential beads

  • Best Friend Beads
  • Family Beads
  • Art Beads
  • Music Beads
  • What Makes Life Worth Living Beads
  • Mantra Beads
  • Impact Beads

Update 8/7: We've created a Pinterest Board to highlight the look and feel that we've shown to designers and suppliers (a few shown below).

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Update: After working closely with the entire staff at on bracelet concepting, we've identified Continental Bead Suppliers as an ideal supplier of bracelet components, both for full prototypes and for scaling. They are willing to work with vendors to source sustainable, affordable, and beautiful components from suppliers overseas, and give us prices usually reserved for larger B2B businesses. We have put out a call to bracelet designers (update 8/7: we received 25 submissions of interest) to help us define the full concept, which must have the following components based on our user research:

  • no dangly charms (shouldn't look like a typical charm bracelet)
  • unisex
  • waterproof
  • charms/beads/etc MUST BE INTERCHANGEABLE or there must be a way to add new ones later
  • sustainable
  • adjustable or one-size fits all (fits men and women)
  • solid closure or no closure at all--it shouldn't have an adjustable closure that creates long loose ends
  • ideally small, doesn't take up much arm space
  • chord is good (as opposed to wider leather)
  • unique, beautiful, cool

2. Web Platform

The digital platform showcases a stunning visualization of all the beads of the entire Memento Mori community, which users can choose to make "public" in the system. Privacy setting might allow users to view visualizations of (and participate in) other cross sections of the community: all beads for a specific person, all beads representing grandparent relationships, etc.

It's deeper utility, though, is in a set of prompts associated with each bead category, through which users can share their own "bead stories." So, for example, there are prompts that point users to share stories celebrating the people they love and lost. There are questions users can answer about their surrogate bead that bond the wearer to their surrogate and explain their "advanced directive" or "5 wishes."   To repeat, each of these stories is associated with a corresponding bead on the physical bracelet.

Update: The web platform can also serve as a hub to host a suite of other solutions that emerge from this challenge, thereby creating a central entry point to this broader end of life discussion and the associated information/services that lead to new actions.

We found an awesome backend developer. Jonathan Lipps has joined the team!

3. The "Live Wallpaper" Home Screen Memento Mori + Connected Memory Galaxy

A major goal of Memento Mori is to make these topics top of mind and remind the wearer to truly live life more fully.  For that to happen, it's ideal if the Memento Mori is tied deeply to someone's core identity. Any social movement would be greatly bolstered if they could make that happen. For the Memento Mori, it is inherent in the product; in the physical world, the Memento Mori is literally worn every day and attached to someone's person, almost like a tattoo on their wrist. However, given the amount of time we spend on our devices, our digital identities are also crucial.

For this reason, we believe it is important to also represent the Memento Mori beads digitally as the background for a phone's home screen.  As users fill out their bead stories, we can algorithmically generate a unique piece of digital art based on their responses. By creating this beautiful representation, which can be saved and shared, users will confront their Memento Mori each time they turn on their phone, reminding them of life/death and to live more fully in the face of mortality.  Furthermore, we can connect all these pieces of art together in a galaxy of interwoven stories, almost like stars in the sky.

This digital aspect of Memento Mori is also important insofar as it provides access to the experience from anywhere without having to necessarily have the physical bracelet shipped.

Updates: Mozilla's new VR/Web team may be interested in designing the "galaxy" experience for us while prototyping their own web-vr platform. This could be an incredible way to bring to life part of the app experience. The awesome thing is that it's only an enhancement, not a necessity for viewing, that's the beauty of the new "responsive VR language."

Renowned composer Phillip Sheppard loves the concept and would like to create a score that algorithmically generates an original piece of music for each day on the calendar--ever!--so that there is a unique soundtrack for each person's Memento Mori based on birth and death day. Incredible!!!

We found an awesome digital artist; Burton Rast has joined the team!


We've identified that a great place to prototype Memento Mori is at end-of-life events or conferences. Memento Mori can serve as a great symbolic binding tool for this broader movement, which will then help influencers champion the product as early adopters to other audiences. As such, we've mocked up a quick UX journey of the conference/festival experience, where bracelets can be given for free or at minimal cost (approx $2 for starter bracelet):

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Through our discussion with physicians that treat patients fighting serious illnesses, we understand that finding and harnessing strength is an important part of overall care.  Our bracelet is intended to support this endeavor.

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1. Reimagine dying. Creating an end of life experience that is meaningful is at the heart of this challenge. How does your idea ignite the life still present? 

This idea is explicitly centered on "igniting the life still present"--that is the very essence of Memento Mori.  We would hope to create a gateway to an entire movement focused on this central and inviting theme.

2. Go beyond tradition. We’re aiming for ideas beyond the fearful or stifling images often associated with death. Are there ways to preserve and honor cultural traditions while being modern and fresh? How might we seek inspiration from outside our own backyards?

Memento Mori is not a fearful or stifling image of death--it makes death beautiful and casts our lives through the lens of death in a powerful, inspiring manner.  It honors traditional beliefs but allows them to be expressed in a modern way; Memento Mori is already a historically cross cultural concept, and the personalization aspects allow it to be relevant to anyone in any culture.

3. Are lighthearted and unique. Paul Bennett once complained that death isn’t “alive and sunny.” While the issue is serious, we all want to have a smile on our face at the end of the day or the end of our life. Solutions might reflect the lightheartedness and humor that we hold dear.

The digital bracelet and wallpaper visualization are unique, emotionally compelling, and artistic. The Bead Stories can and certainly will reflect all emotions; when we tell stories, they inherently touch on a range of emotions. There may even be beads explicitly designed for certain emotions; we could even introduce a "humor" bead.

4. Consider partnerships. We’re looking for ideas that have an understanding of who is best equipped for different parts of the dying process. This topic is a societal need – the healthcare system cannot solve it alone. Who needs to be involved in order to truly reimagine the end-of-life experience?

Our team is already very diverse, but for this to be truly successful, partnerships and multi-disciplinary support and involvement are essential. The concept brings together: artists, the tech community, the fashion community, health care practitioners, and support communities. We can discuss ideal partners, but in early conversations, organizations seem open and excited to get involved.

5. Are human-centered. This is at the heart of OpenIDEO’s approach. Lead with empathy by talking to potential end users, developing prototypes and collecting feedback from those you’re designing for.

This concept is based on deep ethnographic research. Our team has not only conducted a research project focused on a series of in-depth interviews but we've also analyzed design imperatives for success in this space, based on other ventures.


"I need this for my patients! Currently I have them make hope boxes to remind them of why life is so beautiful, but once they are made, they are often 'out of sight, out of mind.'  If they could have something always on their wrist linked to an even deeper experience, that would be perfect.  Then, when they feel down or depressed, we can use the bracelet as a trigger to uplift them. The online part would help them feel connected to others who have similar interests or thoughts. It's genius."--Psychologist, Stanford University working with End of Life Patients

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

[Update 8/7/16] As a palliative care physician, Colin will give bracelets to patients and their family/friends to test the "strength bead". We will speak with those individuals about their strength and have follow-up conversations to see if the bracelet is a useful symbol of this for them. To test the "honor bead" we would use an event to give out bracelets and speak with users about who they are honoring. Then have follow-up conversations to see if the impact continues beyond the event.

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

[Update 8/7/16] We need sponsorship to prototype the bracelet. And if there is event that would be appropriate to give these bracelets out to attendees, we would like to be part of that!

Tell us about your work experience:

Nick-Health care investment banker Maren-Founder of Memento Mori Society, former CEO of Zirtual Brad-Product/behavior change designer, founder of Sunbeam Foundation for pediatric cancer research Colin-Palliative Care MD, Assoc Med Director at Institute for Human Caring

This idea emerged from

  • A group brainstorm


Join the conversation:

Photo of Doug Wilson

I am struck by the beauty of both the written form and the imagination  behind this. I love the way it empowers us moderns with wisdom from the ancients and from secret societies. I'd be delighted to contribute energy and creativity to this.

Photo of Colin Scibetta

Hi Doug, We'd love to chat with you about this.  What's your thought on the mock up jpeg? Do you like it?  

Photo of Dawn Gross

Hi Colin,
I just sent Brad some times I am available for a call. Hopefully we can all connect soon!

Photo of Doug Wilson

I love the mockups. I found myself curious about the algorithms creating the art, and wanting to engage just for the sake of finding out what got created (not to mention the draw of the personal process.) I look forward to connecting, and can generally get available except Tue/Thurs AM and Wed PM. or 707 227 2882.

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