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The “End Of Life Challenge” Gives Death An Extreme Makeover

A global design firm wants your help in life’s most extreme challenge: dying

Courtesy of IDEO

It’s not easy to admit, but the way we die is broken. Everythingfrom the inadequate cliches we mumble, to the stark rooms where many spend their final hours, to the bizarre pomp of the average funeral homecould probably use an upgrade.


But when you’re grieving, you’re probably in a bad place for rational critique (eg, “Maybe a garish flower arrangement won’t actually improve my mood.”) And when you’re not grieving, well, who wants to talk about death?

Maybe there is another way. If we can just spark up some rational dialogue, not avoiding the topic like a conversational third rail, we might just work towards fixing what’s broken. At least that’s the hope of Bay Area design company IDEO, which just started one of the most ambitious conversations about death since Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.

You need to redesign death.” These are the self-imposed marching orders of IDEO’s chief creative officer, Paul Bennett, a man with more than a whiff of the mad genius about him. As guiding light for the company that’s done everything from create Apple’s first mouse to overhaul San Francisco’s school lunches, Bennett has staked a career on (gulp) disrupting.

Bennett has spent years trying to tackle this particular sticky subject, with uneven results. Some of his efforts stray into near-satire, such as when he built a “Death Yurt” in IDEO’s headquarters to inspire and set a mood for his designers. And his clumsy death appcalled alternately After I Go or Keepsnever quite made it off the ground.

But when you’re applying a Silicon Valley-style mindset to such a profound subject, hiccups seem inevitable. An approach that seems disruptive when you’re talking about frozen yogurt or pet care can read gaudy and unwelcome in the death sphere.

That’s why this latest projectdubbed the “End of Life Challengehas such a refreshing tack. Rather than assume a posh design firm knows best how to fix the dying process, they are asking you. They started with an “Inspiration” phase, where people sent in personal anecdotes and general musings on death. Now they’ve moved on to “Ideas”, where you can submit possible solutions.

These ideas range from practical and design-focused (a nicer room for viewing bodies) to high-concept (getting to know your loved ones while they’re healthy) to truly moving (a healing camp for grieving teens). Not every idea is good, but that’s what brainstorms are for.

But this project is more than just hypothetical blah-blah. IDEO is an extremely well-funded company, with a track record of getting things done. After the ideas are sorted and evaluated, the smartest ones will emerge. And in collaboration with the Helix Center, Sutter Health, and the Ungerleider Palliative Care Education Fund, some of these gems will be actualized.

So take a minute to think about the last time death crossed your path. Besides the actual loss, what were the worst parts of the experience? Could it have been improved? How? You have 17 more days to join the conversation.

And of coursethere are no wrong ideas.

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