When I first proposed running a workshop with elderly Leeds residents around death and dying, the idea didn't exactly get the warmest reception. It was actually perceived as being somewhat bad taste. Our participants were coming for a nice day out, and this would be a massive mood kill.
I had been commissioned to host some workshops as part of the Age Friendly Smart City initiative, as Leeds strives to become one of the best places in the UK to grow old in. On this day, members of the Age-friendly Board would meet with people working in elderly care, and local senior residents, and it my job was to stimulate and foster a dialogue that would help get to the bottom of precisely what 'age-friendly' means to those the claim aims to support.
I was keen to introduce the oh-so-morbid subject, as I felt that our approaches to death & dying have a huge influence on our environments, and are pertinent to a dialogue about the future of an age-friendly city. Besides, our Re.designing Death community had already hosted this workshop once before in Berlin, and bringing the format to Leeds to engage with senior citizens would be a big and important step for us.
In a nutshell, “Re.designing Death” is a movement, (a side project gone wild), sparked out of a frustration at the lack of innovation in the antiquated field of death and dying. We – a mixed bunch of designers, anthropologists, undertakers had enthusiasts – caused some ripples in the Design community here in Berlin, and we were keen to grow its momentum.
Our workshop was focused on challenging stereotypes and 'traditions' in funeral practices. We all hate funerals. When we think of funerals, it's all bleak ceremonies with dreary flowers, old-fashioned coffins and drab sermons, without much differentiation between them, whether they be commemorating a cowboy or a clergyman. But there's so much that one can do to honour and celebrate a life – it doesn’t have to be ‘traditional’. From simple activities such as having friends & family paint or decorate the urn or coffin to creating a QR coded tombstone, there are a myriad of ways to bring a bit of personality into the affair. This is what we wanted to communicate, but moreso, we wanted to create a safe space where people could open up and speak about it.
In that vein, my colleagues and I had developed a board game, where the objective was to design funerals for fictional characters. It was very important to us to keep it playful, so that people literally engage with the content and can catch themselves off-guard. Using fictional characters was a way to lower the threshold for this conversation– someone not so close to home, that everyone could relate to. Would Mary Poppins want be buried or cremated? How would James Bond, finally killed in action, want to be memorialized online? (And no prizes for guessing which music would be chosen for Darth Vader’s funeral ceremony.)
Contrary to what one might expect, there was much animated talk and even laughter in the room, but also a lot of poignant reflection. Our participants seemed quite happy to talk about death and funerals, often referring to their own wishes and exchanging ideas and thoughts. All they needed was the right environment and some gentle encouragement to do so. In broaching the topic in a relatively light-hearted way (What would happen to James Bond's Facebook page after he died...? 007 wouldn't have a facebook page, surely?!!) talking about death wasn’t nearly as difficult as you might think.
The game in itself involved a lot of guess work and compromise among team members, which drove home the point, that by putting thought into your own funeral plans, and making your wishes clear you can alleviate a lot of bewilderment and heartache for your loved ones after you're gone.
“It's too soon to talk about [end of life planning] until it's too late"
We hear the same thing again and again – it's too soon to talk about it, until it's too late. I can't help but think if people put an ounce of the same effort they put into planning a wedding, into their funeral planning, we'd experience less painful goodbyes in the long run.
Whether you're 26 or 86, it can be incredibly liberating to embrace your mortality and put thought into how you'd like to be remembered, or what you might consider to be a 'good death'. Our practices won't change unless we stop shying away from the conversation; the taboo enshrouding death has weighted us down for too long. It's time to bring death back into our lives where it belongs.