Mexico isn’t the only country which sets a date with the dead.
Around the world, different countries, cultures, and religions have unique relationships with their dead. And yet, there are plenty of festivals of the dead—which take place over the course of days, or even months—that share spookily similar rituals. Think: offering food, cleaning tombstones, and thanking deceased loved ones for their care and guidance. Don’t let shared origin stories diminish the importance and significance of each one though—they’re all as fascinating as the last.
Hungry Ghost Festival
China’s Hungry Ghost Festival—which has the best name I think I’ve ever heard—is actually a Hungry Ghost Month. In fact, only the final day of the month, when the boundary between life and death is most blurred, is known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, and Chinese Taoists and Buddhists mark the solemn occasion by burning a lot of paper. Not only do they burn paper offerings—which signify the things living relatives wish to send to their deceased loved ones in the afterlife—they also release paper lanterns to help guide the spirits home.
The Obon (or just Bon) Festival is another Buddhist affair, and the Japanese equivalent of China’s Hungry Ghost celebrations (both take place on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month). However, the Japanese version is now usually celebrated on a fixed rather than fluctuating date, around mid-August. Depending where you are in Japan, you might see dances (like the Bon Odori), the release of floating lanterns, or bonfires marking the occasion, although visiting graveyards is a common countrywide ritual.
WHERE: North and South Korea
Unlike China and Japan, the Koreas honor their ancestors in the eighth lunar calendar month (roughly September/ October), in a celebration which also combines dance, food and general revelry over three days. The food, especially rice cakes called songpyeon, plays an important role, principally because thanks are also given to the deceased for their role in providing a good harvest. However, like other days of the dead around the world, graves are also cleaned and dances are also danced.
WHERE: Celtic Peoples
Before Halloween (or All Hallows Eve) there was Samhain (or All Hallows), a Celtic tradition that admittedly has much in common with our present-day October 31 rituals. Take our fancy dress tendencies and giving of sweets for example. The day before Samhain, people thought that their ancestors returned from the afterlife to essentially press a giant reset button on the land and leave it empty just in time for winter. As a result, the night before (a.k.a. Halloween), they’d wear masks to blend in and leave food out for the returning souls. Sounds familiar, right?
Fiesta de las Ñatitas
La Paz, Bolivia welcomes an unusual day of the dead ritual each November, as the Aymara people head to the central cemetery with their deceased loved ones’ skulls in tow. Displayed in boxes, and often adorned with flowers, the skulls are also given offerings (think: food and drink) in thanks for having watched out for their relatives from the realm of the dead over the course of the past year.
To catch a glimpse of the Nepalese Festival of the Cows (otherwise known as Gai Jatra), head to Kathmandu in August or September, where the eight-day affair is principally celebrated. Confused as to what a Festival of the Cows has to do with celebrating the dead? Cows are thought to help guide the deceased into the afterlife, so families with a recently departed loved one will guide a cow (or a boy dressed as a cow) through the streets to both honor and aid their deceased.
Qingming (a.k.a. Ancestors’ Day)
Cleaning the tombs of the deceased forms a large part of China’s Ancestors’ or Tomb Sweeping Day, although consuming dumplings and flying kites are also important. Similarly, offering goods of value in the afterlife—such as tea and joss sticks—is also practiced on Qingming. It’s said that this memorial to the dead, which takes place in roughly mid-April, was established as a way to limit the previously overly-extravagant and all-too-regular ceremonies held in memory of the deceased.
Pchum Ben, a 15-day-long ritual when the veil between living and dead realms is considered to be at its flimsiest, is celebrated countrywide in Cambodia. While the first 14 days, known as Kan Ben, are about remembrance, the fifteenth day—or, Pchum Ben Day—is when Cambodians gather en masse to celebrate. And, as with other festivals of the dead, food is offered to the souls of the departed, who it’s thought return to earth to both connect with their loved ones and atone for past sins.
WHERE: Hindus around the world
Undefined by geographical bounds, Pitru Paksha is a Hindu festival which, like that of the Cambodian Pchum Ben, centers on praying and providing food for the deceased. However, Pitru Paksha lasts for 16, rather than 15 days, and those who take part apparently shouldn’t undertake new projects, remove hair, or eat garlic for the duration.
WHERE: Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine
Radonitsa, the Russian Orthodox Church’s second-Tuesday-of-Easter memorial for the departed, stemmed out of a Slavic tradition which involved visiting graveyards and feasting with the dead. Nowadays, the rituals remain remarkably intact, as this joyful remembrance involves leaving Easter eggs on the tombstones of the deceased before dining beside them, as well as sometimes gifting presents to your in-laws.
For German Protestants, Totensonntag (a.k.a. Sunday of the Dead) is considered a day of remembrance, on which those who honor the occasion will typically pay a visit to the graves of their deceased loved ones. However, unlike some of the festivals of the dead mentioned so far, Totensonntag is a far more somber affair. In fact, it’s sometimes known as “Silent Day” and it’s actually forbidden to dance and play music in public in some parts.
The beliefs of the Dayak Ngaju people of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia state that after death and the departure of a person’s soul, their body’s spirit remains on earth. In order to liberate that spirit and ensure they ascend to the highest level of heaven, it’s necessary to conduct a tiwah. Held anywhere from some months to years after a loved one is buried, the tiwah involves the exhumation and purification of bones and can be a prolonged event in which multiple families participate.
Thursday of the Dead
WHERE: The Levant
In the Levant—a historical geographic region which includes many modern day, Eastern Mediterranean countries—Thursday of the Dead (sometimes known as Thursday of Secrets, Eggs or Sweetness) brings together Christian and Muslim traditions to honor the souls of the deceased around the Easter period. Typically celebrated in the morning, sweets and breads are traditionally doled out to children and those in need.
Día de Muertos
WHERE: Mexico and wider Latin America
You can’t talk about global festivals of the dead without throwing in at least a few references to Mexico and wider Latin America’s Día de Muertos festivities. On November 1 (Día de los Angelitos) and 2 (Día de Muertos), people from across Mexico pay homage to and celebrate the lives of their deceased loved ones by building altars and displaying sugar skulls, amongst other things. In Guatemala, giant kites are flown, while in Ecuador, the Kichwa people memorialize their deceased loved ones by visiting, cleaning, and eating at their gravesides.
FRONTLINE follows renowned New Yorker writer and Boston surgeon Atul Gawande as he explores the relationships doctors have with patients who are nearing the end of life. The film investigates the practice of caring for the dying, and shows how doctors are often remarkably untrained, ill-suited and uncomfortable talking about chronic illness and death with their patients.
Talking about death is hard. And usually it’s really, really hard. Maybe it’s because—much like the process of dying itself—it requires us to be vulnerable, to be honest, to come to terms with a denial we engage with, to varying degrees, our whole lives.
“Death happens to everybody, yet somehow we’re surprised by it,” says hospice and palliative care specialist BJ Miller, MD. “I’m shocked at how many patients and family members have not only had to deal with the pain of sickness and loss, but on top of that they feel bad for feeling bad. They’re ashamed to be dying, ashamed to be sick. There’s a horrible unnecessary suffering that we heap on ourselves and each other for nothing.”
The more intimate we get with the idea of dying, the closer we come to folding it into the fabric of our daily lives, the better off we’ll all be, Miller says. Advice on how to die well is really no more than advice on how to live well, with that unavoidable reality in mind.
A Q&A with Dr. BJ Miller, MD
Q What is a good death?
It’s a deeply subjective question, and the best way I can answer objectively it is to say a good death is one that’s in keeping with who you are as a person; a good death is consonant with your life and your personality.
For example, most people say they want to die at home, that they want to be free from pain. That usually means not having a bunch of medical interventions happening at the end. Effort is put toward comfort instead. But I also know plenty of people who say, “No, no, no. I’m the kind of guy who wants to go down swinging,” or “I’m looking for a miracle,” or whatever it is. And for them, a good death may very well be in the ICU with all sorts of interventions happening, anything that’s going to give them a chance, because they see themselves as fighters and they want to go out fighting.
Q What’s the role of hope in dying?
Hope is a beautiful, powerful, and very useful force. It’s what gets most of us out of the bed in the morning. It’s not a question of whether or not you have hope; the question’s more: What do you hope for? The work is harnessing your hope for something that’s attainable or for something that serves you.
When I’m talking to a patient, and I ask them, “What do you hope for?” If they say, “Well, I hope to live forever,” we can label that a miracle pretty safely. I can say, “I’ll hope for that, too, but if we don’t get that, and if time is shorter than you want, then what do you hope for?” Because hope needs to be qualified. So they’ll say, “Ah, well, if I’m not going to be around much longer, well, then I really hope to make it to my grandson’s graduation in the summer,” or “I really hope to get through the World Series,” or whatever it is.
It’s tempting to say that hope is this thing that you either have or you don’t have. That when you don’t have it, then that’s like giving up or letting go. But it’s not. You can hope and understand you’re dying at the same time. It’s very possible when someone comes to terms with the fact that they’re dying soon, that they hope for a painless death, or they hope to die on a certain day. Those are realistic hopes; it’s a matter of channeling that big force.
Q In what ways is our health care system not equipped to handle dying well?
In the last hundred or so years, what’s become the norm for end-of-life care in the West is a very medicalized death. Hospitals and doctors have become arbiters of death; it used to be a much more mystical thing involving nature and family and culture. But of late, medicine in all of its power has co-opted the subject, and so most people look to their doctors and hospitals as places that forestall death.
We’re spending a lot of time—when it’s precious—in the hospital or at a doctor’s office. You spend a lot of time navigating medications. You’re spending a lot of time hanging on every word the doctor says. That’s a problem in that it’s not really what most of us want. But it goes that way because we’re afraid to confront the truth. We’re afraid to talk about it, so we all end up in a default mode. The default mode is in the hospital with a bunch of tubes and medicines and someone keeping your body alive at any cost. That has become the default death, and that’s not what most people would consider a good death.
Q How do you approach that conversation of getting someone to accept the reality of their sickness and also the uncertainty that might come with it?
It’s really hard, and it’s a really complicated dynamic. Most people don’t want to hear that they’re dying, so they don’t listen to their doctors, and most doctors don’t want to tell people that they’re dying.
Because people aren’t primed to hear it, and doctors aren’t primed to say it, what happens is there’s this little complicit dance between doctors and patients and family members. Everyone just kind of tries to scare one another off, so they don’t mention death and they instead lean on euphemisms. You’d be shocked at how many well-educated, thoughtful people come toward the end of their life and find themselves surprised that they’re dying.
A palliative care doctor starts the conversation by getting a sense of where the patient is. What’s their understanding of their illness? I typically invite a conversation with open-ended questions, like “Well, tell me about what’s important to you. Tell me about what you would let go of to live longer.” I get to know the person. When I feel safe with them and we’re speaking the same language, then I can broach the subject of time, and I can say, “Well, you know, because of X, Y, or Z diagnosis, whatever else it is, at some point this disease is not likely to be curable, and we’re going to have to turn our attention to the fact of death. Let’s prepare for it. Let’s plan for it.”
This is where death and life go together very helpfully: The way to prepare for death is to live the life you want. If you start talking to someone about how they want to die, you usually end up landing on how they want to live until they die. That’s a much less scary conversation. It’s a much more compelling conversation for people, too, and it’s more accurate.
Q What matters to most people at the very end?
There are consistent themes around this, which we know from both data and experience:
Comfort is important. Very few people are interested in suffering. Some people are, but most people want to be free from pain.
Most people want to be surrounded by friends and family. They want to be either at home or at a place they call home, a place of their choosing; some people are in the hospital for months, and that becomes their home. The people around them become their family.
Most people are spiritual and have some relationship to a creator, so most people want to be at peace with their god, to be at peace spiritually.
Most people also want to leave their family with as little burden as possible, so that means financial planning, etc. It’s very important to people that they not be a burden to their family unnecessarily.
Q Why do you think as a culture we find it so challenging to talk about death and dying?
You can kind of tell that America is a young place, in part by the way we handle aging and death. We’re terrified of it. Most cultures have been dealing with this a long, long time and have made peace with death as a part of life. Instead of falling back on institutional cultural ritualized knowledge, we’ve outsourced dying to medicine. We leave one another feeling like we’re incompetent at dying, when in fact, we have it in us. We’re just too far removed from it.
In the last 170 years or so, as a society—especially in the health care industry—we’ve been in a long romance with innovation and technology. We believe if you hang in long enough and you work hard enough, everything is solvable. That we can invent our way through anything. You hear people talk, and you realize somehow they’ve absorbed this idea that death is optional, when in fact, of course, it’s not. I notice in my practice when I’m dealing with someone who lives on a farm, someone who is close to nature and its cycles, that they know that death is a part of life. Inherently. They’re around it all day, every day, whether it’s slaughtering an animal or raking up leaves. They haven’t removed themselves from nature’s cycles, so death makes total sense to them. Those of us who are living more technologically driven lives often lose that intuition, that gut feel, and so nature surprises us. Nature scares us.
Part of the problem, too, is what one of my colleagues calls the “medical-industrial complex”: Health care is an enormous business in this country. As long as we decide to consider health care a business and not a civil right, it’s subject to all the fickleness of capitalism and it requires marketing. When I see hospitals advertised to the public as the place where miracles happen, a place where anything’s possible, you know, that’s an advertisement. That’s marketing. That’s not real. We’re not incentivized to be honest with one another in this way.
Q How can you stay in the world and retain a sense of purpose toward the end of life? How much does that matter?
This question of purpose is related to the question of being a burden, and both come up a lot. First, let’s all get better at being vulnerable because we are vulnerable. If you’re in the course of a normal life, any one of us is going to be a burden to someone sometime. It’s just not possible to only give care and not need to receive it. Getting more savvy with needing one another is one way to turn down the pain.
We can also learn to repurpose ourselves. I meet people often who have had a single kind of career or place within their family their whole lives. They’ve had this monolithic role, and as soon as they can no longer perform that role, they lose their sense of purpose. They have nowhere else to go, they have no other interests, they don’t believe they can repurpose themselves, and they lose touch with reality really quick. This is one of the ways we die before we actually die.
But you can find that purpose again, in a different way. I’m working with a family right now, and the mother, she’s about seventy years old, and she’s been a teacher much of her life. She’s been the one in the family who’s always giving care. Now it’s her turn to receive care, and she’s really struggling, and she’s not good at it. She’s gone seventy years without needing much from others, and it shows. In her mind, she’s lost her role as the caregiver. So what we’ve been doing of late is saying, “How can we repurpose your life as a teacher? What can you teach your grandchildren now?” We’re learning she can teach her grandchildren a lot about death. She can teach her grandchildren a lot about being vulnerable and the courage it takes to be vulnerable. She can teach her kids how to communicate with someone who’s suffering. These are enormous lessons, and all of a sudden, she doesn’t feel like she’s being stripped of everything important to her. She’s seeing that she still has some creative life in her and she can take old skills and reapply them in this new way.
Purpose is a powerful force, but there’s value in life beyond purpose. In America, life is all about productivity. You know you’re relevant in this society as long as you can produce, and as your ability to produce reigns, so does your employment and worth. Aging then becomes this process of getting out of the way, and that’s pretty lame. It’s on all of us to see that there’s something bigger to life than our jobs or our single role or whatever it is—life is much more interesting than that. We are much more interesting than that. Another way to help one another repurpose is to actually let go of the need to be so dang productive. Get in touch with the mystery of life and the power of just being at all. That, I find, is a very, very useful thing for people who feel purpose is slipping through their fingers.
Q What advice do you have for family members or loved ones who are helping with end-of-life care?
There are so many layers to this: There are practical burdens, emotional burdens, financial burdens. All need addressing.
Hospice is an incredible service that can dramatically unburden the family. When your health is failing and you need more help with the activities of daily living, family members can step in to do that, or perhaps it’s time to hire a home health aide. But very often what ends up happening is people wait too long to invite hospice into their homes, because they wait way too long to face this reality, and then it’s too late to do much. So one piece of advice I stress to everyone is to think about home health care and hospice early. Even if you think death is years away but are still dealing with a serious illness, call hospice sooner rather than later. Just request an informational interview. Get a sense of what they can do and broach the subject as part of your planning. You don’t have to sign up anytime soon.
The other big emotional piece is to fold death into our view of reality so that we don’t feel guilty that Mom’s dying. It’s always amazing to me how many creative ways we find to feel horrible. I watch family members blame themselves for the death of a loved one all the time, even though there’s nothing that could be done to forestall it. We view death as a failure, and families end up absorbing that sense of failure. It’s heartbreaking. And if there’s one thing we can’t fail at, it’s death. You are going to die. There is no failing.
We all need to get a lot more savvy with grief. Grief is around us all the time. We’re always losing something. A relationship, hair, body parts. Loss is all over the place, and our American way is to kind of pull yourself up by the bootstraps. There’s something to that, but we’ve got to get better at just letting ourselves feel sad. We have to give one another more space for grieving. Grief is just the other side of the coin of love. If you didn’t love someone, it wouldn’t be so hard to lose them. Acknowledge that. Work with it. Let yourself feel it. That will help everybody involved.
We also need to push our human resources programs to help with caregiver education for family members or generous bereavement time off. That’s a big piece of this puzzle if we as a society are going to die better.
Q You’ve spoken before about your own brush with death and becoming a triple amputee. How does that experience inform your work?
Most of us have a kind of a haphazard view of reality that may not include illness or death. Illness and death can end up feeling like this foreign invader, despite the reality that they’re natural processes. My own trauma and illness gave me a wider view of the world that includes that reality, so that I wasn’t ashamed to be disabled. I was normal to be disabled. It helped me understand I was a human being for whom things go wrong. A human being for whom the body dies. That is the most normal thing in the world.
It helped me see myself in my patients and my patients in me. It’s easier for me to empathize with people who are sick and near the end because I’ve been there myself to some degree. But you don’t need to lose three limbs to relate; suffering and illness and death are hard subjects, but at the most basic level, they unite us. We all have some relationship them, and therefore we all have a lot in common.
I’m also aware that because I’m obviously disabled, I think patients, as a rule, give me some credit. I feel like I have an easier time getting to a trusting place with patients. If you take one look at my body, you know I’ve been in the bed, and I do think that is actually a great advantage for me in the work I do.
Q Have you ever felt as though you’ve failed a patient?
To be clear, most days I spend a fair amount of time talking myself out of hating myself, you know, just like most people. I’m deeply, deeply aware of all the things I can’t do or didn’t do today, or that patient I didn’t call in time before they died, or you name it. There is a long daily list of things I have to spend a moment reconciling. Usually it relates to some form of communication: I didn’t quite find a way to break through; I didn’t quite find a way to help them feel safe; I didn’t quite find a way for them to feel seen or understood my me.
Q How can spirituality help someone come to terms with death?
It depends how you define spirituality, but I might define it as a connecting force that we cannot see but have faith is there. That somehow, we’re tied into some creative force that is much larger than ourselves and that is all-encompassing and all-inclusive. If you have a spiritual framework, it’s easier for you to yield to death because you know even in your death you’re still part of something beautiful or enormous. That sense of belonging can do so much for us.
When I found myself near death, and thinking about these things and revisiting my spirituality, it became clear to me that I would be very sad to die. I don’t want to die yet. But what matters even more to me than my life or death is the fact that I exist at all, that life exists at all, and I get to feel part of that, and my death is part of that.
Q Can art play a role as well?
So much of life and death is so powerful and so huge. There’s just so much more to the world and life than what we can find in a word, so the arts can help us kind of get in touch with these larger threads, these larger forces, these things we can’t quite see or feel, a little bit like spirituality.
Expressing yourself artistically can be therapeutic, too. For people going through illness or the dying process, if they’re able to get in touch with their creative impulse and make something from their experiences, that’s an amazing way for them to participate in their life and in their illness. To turn their suffering into grist…something to paint with, essentially. It’s just very rich and fertile ground.
With architecture and design, the way we cultivate our built environment has such power in terms of how we experience life. Standing in a beautiful museum can make you feel things you wouldn’t otherwise and can help you pay attention to things that are really difficult. I would love to see the arts get more involved with the heath care infrastructure so that hospitals and nursing homes are places where you’d actually want to be, places that are beautiful or stimulating. The arts provoke the life in you, and that’s very powerful when the goal is to really live until you die.
Q How do you recommend preparing for death?
Explore a hospice and palliative care program as early as possible. Ask your doctor about it. Research local hospice agencies. There’s a website called getpalliativecare.org, where you enter your zip code and it’ll show you your options. Of course, some programs are better than others, but as a rule, these services are designed to help you suffer less, help you find meaning in your life, and help you live a full life.
Even when you’re feeling exhausted and you just want to hand yourself over to a doctor, you need to find a way to advocate for yourself. Otherwise you’re going to end up in the default mode in the health care system, and that’s going to mean ICU and machines and all sorts of things that you may not want. Your doctor is there to help you, and you need to work with them. But push your doctor: Ask them about palliative care, and if they say, “Oh, you don’t need palliative care,” ask why not. Or if you think you want to prepare with hospice, ask your doctor about hospice. What do they think about hospice? Is now a good time to start it? If they say you don’t need hospice, ask, “Why not? When would I?” Between the medical system and the training that goes into it, understand you need to advocate upstream. You’re pushing a rock up the hill.
Anywhere along the way, start saving money, period. The number one cause of personal bankruptcy in this country is health care costs, and the bulk of those people who go bankrupt because of heath care costs had health insurance. I don’t think people realize even if you have insurance, there are costs that are going to come up that you would never imagine, so if you have any capacity, just start saving. You’re going to need money toward the end of life. You’re going to need money to navigate illness.
Whether it’s in yourself or with someone you care about, reward vulnerability. Be vulnerable. Go toward it. Be with people and yourself when you’re suffering. It takes courage to be vulnerable, to get help and to give help. When it comes to your time, it’s important that you’ve learned how to receive care.
Then there’s the biggest one: Dying ain’t easy, but it’s going to happen, and there’s a lot of beauty in it. The fact that we die is exactly what makes life precious in the first place. You don’t have to love death, but try to have some relationship with it. Think about it. Contemplate it. As soon as you start doing that, the sooner you start making decisions you can live with, and you’ll avoid stockpiling a bunch of regrets. People who don’t think about death just end up assuming they’re going to live forever, until it’s too late to live that life they wanted to lead.
BJ Miller, MD is a hospice and palliative care specialist who sees patients in the Cancer Symptom Management Service of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. After studying art history as an undergraduate at Princeton University, he worked for several years for art and disability-rights nonprofit organizations before earning a medical degree at UCSF. He completed an internal medicine residency at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, where he was chief resident, and a fellowship in hospice and palliative medicine at Harvard Medical School, working at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. His forthcoming book with coauthor Shoshana Berger, a practical and emotional guide to dying called The Beginner’s Guide to the End, is due out from Simon & Schuster in 2019.
In this Oscar-nominated animated short, a young woman receives a mysterious package that contains a vinyl record. She soon realizes that she can go forward or backward in time by simply adjusting the position of the needle as the record plays on her stereo.
My friend Jacqueline Zinn was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a brain cancer, in 2013; she died 18 months later, at age 56, leaving behind a husband and four kids. Jacquie was a triathlete who knew a thing or two about endurance, and she managed her treatment — surgery, radiation and chemotherapy — with the same skill and organization she had brought to her work as a project manager for a drug company. Once she realized that she had only weeks to live, Jacquie began planning for the next chapter: her death and its aftermath.
And so “every night for weeks she wrote letters to our children,” her husband Doug recalled. Jacquie wrote multiple letters to each child, to be opened at different life milestones. Jacquie wanted to be “present with her kids,” he said, at each of those important moments
for what I jokingly call “The End” is not for faint hearts. War hero John McCain is said to have been disciplined and firm as he planned his funeral over the past year, including the singing of the Irish ballad “Danny Boy.” But few of us have that strength. Recently divorced, I needed to rewrite my will and my medical power of attorney as well as a host of other financial and medical documents. At almost every turn, I found myself crashing head-on into the wall of denial. Just last week, my attorney begged me to acknowledge that I was at least receiving her emails, even if I couldn’t respond to them. “Yes,” I replied, tersely. All this resistance, and I’m not suffering from any terminal condition.
That’s why Jacquie Zinn’s letters to her children seem heroic to me. After all, she did have a terminal diagnosis when she sat down to write what ended up being more than a dozen letters to her children, ranging in age from 11 to 21, and she knew her time was short. I first heard about the letters at her memorial service in 2013. This past spring, working on a book about death and dying, I reached out to her second-born son, Jerry, who was writing about the loss of his mother, to ask if he’d be willing to share his letters from her. He’d already gotten two — one soon after her death and one when he graduated from college — and after some hesitation, he said okay. Now 24, Jerry will get the final letter when he marries.
“The letters my mother left me are among the most precious gifts I possess,” he told me. “She diligently took the time, the very limited time, as her life was coming to an end to sit down and think about her children’s futures.”
So one day, in perfect cursive penmanship and blue ink after her oncologist told her she had only weeks left, Jacquie wrote her first letter to Jerry, then age 19, to be opened after she died. Here is a portion of it:
“Dear Jerry, my budding film-maker,
“I know you have a lot of emotions running through you, as I did when my father died, but I was much older than you at the time, so I really can’t begin to truly comprehend what you are feeling. I am so incredibly sorry that I had to die while you are so young and I assume it sucks for you. Perhaps you can use some of these emotions and feelings in your upcoming work(s), assuming you continue to pursue film.
“Let me assure you that I did absolutely everything I could to stay alive for as long as possible. I know you realize that having been with me at many of my treatments or tests. Plus the acupuncture, tons of praying I also did. But for some reason I just didn’t make it as one of the chosen ones to be cured. But because of what I did I’m sure I lived much longer than if I hadn’t been in good shape to begin with.
“I am incredibly proud of you for everything you have done in your relatively short life. I will be watching over you every day to see what new and exciting things you will accomplish — regardless of what occupations(s) you pursue over your lifetime.
“Do your best to support Dad and your siblings, especially during this first year as it will be the hardest for everyone. I remember that from when my father died. Time will certainly help, but it takes a long time to focus on the happy memories while the sad thoughts are more immediate and closer at hand.
“I had many fantastic years on earth, more than a lot of people, hence, I have no complaints. I survived a melanoma, car accident in the mountains of West Virginia with Uncle Jerry, car accident in Durham. So I have already lived many lives and I was extremely grateful for each and every moment. Try and live your life that way and you will be a happy and fulfilled human being.
“I love more than you will ever know, my dearest Jerry.
On the day Jerry graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2016, Doug handed over letter No. 2, written with the same pen, on the same type of note paper.
“My sweet dear Jerry,
“Well — this is it — a big milestone in your life — college graduation! Congratulations. I am so incredibly proud of you no matter what your major or minors. I know you made it worthwhile and got just exactly what you wanted to out of the experience. I know you learned an incredible amount about subjects and probably an even greater amount about people.”
Jerry said that at various times during college he had considered dropping out, but “knowing that I would never receive that letter if I did not graduate was a very strong influence in keeping me in school. The letter was a motivation for which I will be forever grateful.” Knowing Jacquie as I did, I’m certain that was part of her master plan.
In the second letter, Jacquie signs off with these words: “I am watching over you all the time, or at least I hope I can do that! Congratulations, again. Enjoy this fabulous day and all the celebrations around. Big Hugs and Kisses! Much Love, Mom.”
What a gift, an eternal gift, I thought as I read and reread the two letters. More than anything, I silently bowed in amazement, understanding how Jacquie had faced her own version of “The End.” Doug reminded me that she’d written her letters while in a wheelchair, paralyzed on one side.
With Jacquie’s example in mind, I finally sat down and read the pile of documents my lawyer had sent to me, realizing that my denial served no purpose. To my surprise, I found comfort in taking care of that necessary business — once done. I’d like to think that was something Jacquie felt, too, as she sent her missives into the future.
A legendary design firm, a corporate executive, and a Buddhist-hospice director take on the end of life.
By Jon Mooallem
There’s an ugliness — an inelegance — to death that Paul Bennett gradually came to find unacceptable. It seems to offend him the way a clumsy, counterintuitive kitchen tool might, or a frumpy font. At first, that disgruntlement was just “a whisper in my mind,” Bennett explains. “But it’s gone from being a whisper to a roar.” The solution, when it finally occurred to him, felt obvious. “Oh,” he told himself. “You need to redesign death.”
Bennett is 51 — 30.7 years to go, if the demographic data is reliable — a blindingly energetic British man with unruly brown hair. He works as chief creative officer at Ideo, the global design firm that’s renowned for its intuitive, wizardly touch. Over its 25-year history, as Ideo has expanded from simple product design into branding, organizational design, and management consulting, it has worked in virtually every corner of our economy: A list of recent clients includes Genentech, Bank of America, the Centers for Disease Control, JetBlue, and the Today show. Ideo’s founders designed Apple’s first mouse and the stand-up toothpaste tube. Its designers have overhauled San Francisco’s public school-lunch program and helped reorganize government agencies in Singapore and Dubai. They’ve developed a toilet for low-income families in Ghana. They’ve built a better Pringle.
Often, the firm’s brilliance rests on showing clients something obvious that’s been overlooked, or cutting through buildups of false assumptions. “I think we sense-make really well,” Bennett told me. One example he likes to cite involved attaching mirrors to the gurneys at a Minnesota hospital so that patients could actually make eye contact with the doctors and nurses wheeling them around.
Bennett works out of Ideo’s stylish San Francisco office, at Pier 28 on the Embarcadero, and like others operating at the top of the Bay Area’s innovation economy, he doesn’t have a concrete job description: It can be hard for an outsider to sense-make what he does. According to his company bio, he is responsible for “cross-pollination of ideas and insights” and “traveling, learning.” As Ideo has grown, the company has delved into more abstract, conceptual work, driven not by specific clients but by Bennett and the other partners’ own evolving fascinations. Bennett’s role is to stoke the firm’s bigger ambitions, then go out and excite clients about them, too, transforming those personal obsessions into business opportunities. (When we met one morning last spring, he’d just returned from chatting about “reinventing Judaism” with some unbelievably fantastic rabbi in Los Angeles. “I love this guy,” Bennett raved.) He is quick-witted, blunt, and irrepressibly optimistic about nearly everything. In meetings you can feel junior designers’ eagerness to impress him — to electrify him — and he carries himself with a kind of fidgety, ecstatic gravitas. Imagine Don Draper played by Ricky Gervais.
Bennett’s fixation on death began with the death of his father. He was close to his dad; in a recent talk, he likened his childhood to the plot of Billy Elliot, a story “about a little nelly gay boy who twirled in the northeast of England” and the exceedingly masculine father who dared to love him. Bennett, in fact, traces his identity as a designer to the day in 1974 when his father, Jim, a former military pilot, brought home The Golden Hands Encyclopedia of Crafts. Jim Bennett then spent the next two years sitting with his son, making macramé and knitting God’s eyes, so that sensitive little kid could explore his talent and find his confidence. In 2001, Bennett’s father wound up in a hospital bed, stricken with bone cancer. Bennett was 5,000 miles away at home in San Francisco. He told his father he’d be on the next flight, but Jim ordered him not to come. Eventually, Bennett understood why. His father had painstakingly maintained his dignity his entire life. Now “he was trying to somehow control that experience,” Bennett says. “He was designing the last granule of what he had left: his death.”
So much about death is agonizingly unknowable: When. Where. Lymphoma or lightning strike. But Bennett recognized there are still dimensions of the experience under our control. He started zeroing in on all the unspoken decisions around that inevitability: the aesthetics of hospitals, the assumptions and values that inform doctors’ and families’ decisions, the ways we grieve, the tone of funerals, the sentimentality, the fear, the schlock. The entire scaffolding our culture has built around death, purportedly to make it more bearable, suddenly felt unimaginative and desperately out of date. “All those things matter tremendously,” Bennett told me, “and they’re design opportunities.” With just a little attention, it seemed — a few metaphorical mirrors affixed to our gurneys at just the right angle — he might be able to refract some of the horror and hopelessness of death into more transcendent feelings of awe and wonder and beauty.
In 2013, bennett started sharing his ideas with the other partners at Ideo, selling them on death as an overlooked area of the culture where the firm could make an impact. He had a very unspecific, simple goal: “I don’t want death to be such a downer,” he told me. And he was undaunted by all the dourness humanity has built up around the experience over the last 200,000 years. “It’s just another design challenge,” he said. His ambition bordered on hubris, but generally felt too child-like, too obliviously joyful, to be unlikable. One time I heard him complain that death wasn’t “alive and sunny.”
Ideo realized there was a big opportunity in death. There are currently 76 million American baby boomers inching reticently in its direction. “We’re a generation that’s used to radicalizing things,” Bennett explains. Now, as many boomers watch their parents die just as Bennett had, accepting the soulless, one-size-fits-all deaths that society deals them, they seem to be rebelling one last time. Everywhere Bennett looked — New York Times opinion pieces and Frontline specials; assisted-suicide laws; the grassroots Death Café movement, where folks get together for tea and cake and talk about their mortality; a campaign in La Crosse, Wisconsin, that got 96 percent of the entire town to fill out advance directives, spelling out their wishes for end-of-life care — he saw his generation striving to make death more palatable, more expressive. And at the far extreme is the crop of phenomenally well-capitalized biotech startups working to get around the insufferable inconvenience of death altogether, either through science-fictionesque “radical life extension” treatments or by uploading your consciousness to the cloud. (These include Calico — Google’s so-called “Immortality Project” — and J. Craig Venter’s company Human Longevity, Inc. The founder of Oracle, Larry Ellison, who set up the Ellison Medical Foundation to defeat death, has explained his motivation succinctly: “Death has never made any sense to me.”) One way or another, Bennett told me, “We’re all holding hands and saying, ‘Forget that shit. Not going to happen.’”
I followed Bennett’s work over the past year — a journey that, in the end, may reveal less about the death of people than it does about the life of ideas, particularly the brand of Big Idea that distinctly Californian institutions like Ideo send careening through the culture. Right away, Bennett understood it would take years to see the sort of wholesale shift he was imagining — a generation or more. There was so much to do, he could really start anywhere. He just needed to find a few suitable clients, to locate a few fissures through which a genuinely different conversation about death could begin to flow. And because he was looking in San Francisco, in the year 2014, the first one he found was a startup building an app.
The app was called After I Go. The president and ceo of the company building it, Paul Gaffney, had founded two other startups but had spent most of his career working near the top of large corporations such as Charles Schwab, Office Depot, Staples, and aaa, primarily helping them find their footing online. He was 47, a loose and affable guy despite being excruciatingly analytic at his core. Once, when I asked Gaffney about himself, he explained that his “personal value proposition” is “establishing a vision for a new outcome particularly in consumer-related spaces enabled by the novel use of technology” — but he managed to sound human when he said it, even warm.
Gaffney described After I Go as TurboTax for death: a straightforward app that would allow people to write wills or advance directives and, in general, preemptively smooth out the many ancillary miseries that can ripple through a family when someone dies. Bank accounts, life-insurance policy numbers, user names and passwords, what night the garbage goes out — all of it could be seamlessly passed on. Whatever fear or despair people feel about death is only heightened by the fear that, because they never got around to making the necessary preparations, their death might burden the people they love. Gaffney assumed there’d be a big market for an app that eliminated that risk. “Simply providing people with that sense of organization would be a huge emotional payoff,” he said. But he was spectacularly wrong. Bouncing his ideas off potential investors, he quickly understood that no one welcomed a chance to prepare for death. It’s thankless drudgery — plus, it reminds you you’re going to die.
Gaffney realized he couldn’t just build the right tool; he also had to build the motivation to do the job in the first place. That’s what people would pay for. Suddenly, the work After I Go needed to do was no longer rational but emotional — which is to say, far outside Gaffney’s personal value proposition. (“I learned a long time ago that I’m not a good test case for how human beings respond,” he explains.) And so he hired Ideo to help.
The Convening, as everyone called the first After I Go strategy session, happened early last April, not long into Gaffney’s three-month residency at Ideo. About 25 people gathered in the large studio of the firm’s San Francisco office, arrayed on colorful armchairs and couches.
“How can death be designed?” Paul Bennett said, rising to set the tone. He explained that he’d grown up in Singapore, where it’s customary to burn intricate paper sculptures at funerals: paper televisions, paper houses, paper Cadillacs — all kinds of gorgeous extravagances that would, via their rising smoke, accompany the deceased into the beyond. As Bennett put it, “They wanted the dead person to go into the afterlife with all this awesome shit!” But Bennett’s family eventually returned to England, he went on, a place where even the joyful parts of life were muted by the gray and cold. And he was shocked by how different funerals were there, how leaden and awful. It was proof, he explained to the Convening, that how we feel about death is up to us. Then he looked at everyone and, with great earnestness, asked: “Why can’t death feel more like life?”
From there, the Convening broke into four smaller circles to think through the possibilities for After I Go. Bennett assumed the role of facilitator and secretary in his group, manically scribbling notes with a Sharpie. When one woman shared a clip on her laptop of a New Orleans jazz band marching behind a casket, Bennett told her, “I love it. I’m writing ‘jazz death.’” He scribbled jazz death on a pink Post-it and slapped it against the wall.
Paul Gaffney was seated in Bennett’s circle and explained that, like Bennett, his interest in death had been stoked by recent personal experience. His wife and her siblings were now organizing their parents’ affairs after their father had been diagnosed with dementia. It sharpened Gaffney’s understanding of just how much disarray survivors can be left to organize, and how much can get lost. Still, Gaffney confessed, while he’s filed his own important information in an orange folder at home, and periodically reminds his wife it’s there, he rarely gets around to updating it. “What’s your folder called?” Bennett asked him, Sharpie at the ready. “It’s called the Orange Folder,” Gaffney said.
From there, Bennett started posing a series of “how-might-we’s” to the group — Ideo-speak, it seemed, for questions. The first was, How might we get people to start using After I Go? Ideas started firing — “death Tupperware parties,” “will weekends” for couples in Napa, commandeering Groundhog Day as a national “Death Preparedness Day” — until someone brought the conversation back to Gaffney’s orange folder. Maybe After I Go needed to sell a physical object like that in stores, with instructions and a download code inside; it would be a kind of totem, committing you symbolically to starting the preparation process. This idea felt promising until one woman asked, “But if it’s in the consumer space, what’s the draw?”
And there was the underlying tension. In short, why would anyone buy death? Consumer culture is always aspirational: We’re lured along by desire and joy, chasing ever-receding rewards. Gaffney’s challenge seemed to be convincing consumers to step off that rapturous treadmill and think hard about the very thing it was arguably designed to distract us from. That’s why, in part, the business excited Paul Bennett: The app could help reintegrate death into our lives. It could encourage us to start making peace with the inevitability of dying and start making decisions to shape its other aspects — here and now, and not only at the last moment, like Bennett’s father had, when there are few decisions left to make. The question, really, was how to lure ordinary, preoccupied people into contemplating big, transcendent ideas like mortality, continuity, legacy. Once, religion had cleared that space in our lives. Now it was up to Ideo to whiteboard it out.
Eventually the group moved on to another exercise using a handout about Bob and Sherry Alvi, a fictional couple outside Boston. There was even a photo of the Alvis with their two daughters: They looked cornfed and chipper, grinning in front of a fireplace. Bob, the handout explained, was an After I Go user. He was also almost dead; he’d been in a car accident and was in critical condition. And so the Alvis found themselves on the cusp of one of After I Go’s Key Brand Moments — which is to say, death. The question was, How should After I Go make contact with the newly widowed Sherrys of the world?
The circle was quiet. This one was trickier. You can’t just email her, right? The consensus was no, though the idea seemed to hang there momentarily until Bennett finally concurred. (“Death feels very analog,” he explained.) Someone proposed sending Sherry a “condolence kit”: a courier could bring all of Bob’s passwords and information along with a nice bottle of wine. Then, quietly, one man asked, Why not deliver the information to Sherry in a letter, handwritten in advance by Bob?
Instantly, the circle felt electric. Bennett was vibrating; he loved it. Others chimed in, building off the idea, and Bennett began writing madly across multiple Post-its, not coming up for air. (An awkward disclosure: The person who suggested the handwritten-letter idea was me; Ideo strongly encouraged me to participate in the Convening, so I did.) Bennett kept on scribbling. When he finally turned around, a chain of Post-Its behind him read: “Selling a service → Delivering a Message → Executing A Wish → Providing Comfort.” This was the magnificent evolution that Gaffney’s company had just hurtled through in his mind. After I Go could carry back so much more than passwords and legal information from beyond; it could transmit memories, messages, love. That was the emotional payoff, the only way to entice people into filling out all those tedious, frightening forms. Bennett tapped at the word comfort. Then he circled it. “That’s our big idea,” he said. “Comfort is the product. That’s the genius of it. You sell that.”
They had started somewhere practical — living wills, checking accounts, who should cancel the gardener — and landed somewhere metaphysical: an opportunity to comfort your widow from the grave. It was break time. Gaffney and the Ideo designers got up for coffee and snacks, but Bennett stayed at the wall, writing more Post-its, shuffling and collating them, preparing a little presentation so that, when all four circles reconvened, he could unveil these insights for the group.
“We’re moving from estate planning to story building,” he said, to no one in particular. Then he sat cross-legged on the carpet and waited, twirling his Sharpie by the bent clip on its cap.
In the weeks after the Convening, Gaffney and a handful of Ideo designers got to work in a small windowless room at the southern edge of Ideo’s office. Gradually, they covered the walls in sketches, clippings, and printouts, teasing out the tone and aesthetic of the app and imagining all possible features they might build and test.
Some of the drier mock-ups included pages to help users draft a will or designate power of attorney, or offered portals into a network of vetted legal professionals who could help. But most took bigger, more inventive leaps forward, such as allowing users to curate shareable collections of “funeral inspirations” like a Pinterest page or Amazon wish list; samples were pinned with photos of blood-orange spritzers, Japanese lanterns, and succulents. (“For my sunset party, I want deviled eggs,” one read.) The team’s most mind-bending innovation was something it called After-Gifting, whereby a person could arrange to dispense preselected birthday gifts to family members for years after his or her death. Baby booties made from your favorite jacket could be delivered to a newborn child you’d never meet. The dead might also send time-delayed text messages on special occasions, or just to say hi. After I Go could even digitize your handwriting into a font so that fresh, personalized content could continue to be generated on your behalf.
In other words, After I Go wasn’t only a tool for mundane, administrative death prep anymore. It had inflated into something far bigger — even if, in this freewheeling brainstorming phase, it wasn’t always 100 percent intelligible what that was. There was also a strange shortsightedness to some of the team’s ideas. Ginning up years’ worth of texts for your widow might comfort the person who is dying, for example, but would an actual widow want to keep receiving them? (Imagine if one landed three years later while she was on a date.) Another write-up, meanwhile, explained an alternate brand concept the team had worked up called Bon Voyage. Bon Voyage was all about celebrating “our aspirational desire for richness, beauty and simplicity in this life and whatever comes next.” To illustrate that theme, designers had mocked up the Bon Voyage account of a hypothetical user named Wilfredo.
The screen caps looked like a Madewell catalog — spare and white, with old childhood photos of the deceased arranged around quotes from loved ones and floating images of his cherished possessions. It was gorgeous, but also jarring; essentially, they’d built a luxury brand for death. And yet any feeling of elitism or superficiality was also undercut, albeit a little awkwardly, by their choice of Wilfredo. “He was the best Midas muffler manager we ever had,” one testimonial read. Nearby was a photo of the canteen Wilfredo carried “while serving as a Sandinista.”
That spring, Gaffney’s original, strait-laced vision of the app began to recede into a cloud of more emotionally indulgent features and evocative marketing copy. This was fine with Gaffney, even thrilling: Investors, he found, were responding to the app in an entirely new way. (At one meeting, Gaffney says, a prominent venture capitalist interrupted his pitch and shouted, approvingly: “I want my mother’s damn frittata recipe!”) Gaffney told me, “We now have to pivot and operate exactly like any other startup would.” All he wanted was to build a product that people would use.
One afternoon at the end of April, in the middle of that pivot, Gaffney and Paul Bennett gave a short tour of the project to a man named BJ Miller.
Miller is the executive director of San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project, which since 1987 has quietly helped pioneer the field of palliative care. Loosely defined, palliative care is an empathic approach to medicine and end-of-life care that considers the many nuanced emotional, spiritual, and physical experiences of the patient and his or her overall well-being, rather than formulaically treating a medical condition. Zen Hospice deploys a corps of more than a hundred trained volunteers into homes and at a city hospital, but its centerpiece is a tranquil six-bedroom Victorian home in Hayes Valley known as the Guest House.
The Guest House has an extraordinary feel to it, deeply spiritual without being overbearing or mushy. Residents are invited to meditate with staff and often gather in the kitchen to casually enjoy the rituals and smells of cooking, even if they’re unable to eat. Miller told me he recently supported the decision of a woman at the Guest House with terminal cancer to start smoking again — as he explained it, it was worth it for her to feel and use the very lungs she was losing; it deepened her experience of letting go. In short, Miller explained, Zen Hospice’s power comes from recognizing that “dying is a human act, not just a medical one.”
Miller had been introduced to Ideo about a year earlier, and quickly achieved a kind of guru status among many at the firm. (“He came in and everyone instantly fell in love with him,” one Ideo staffer told me.) He is 44 and preternaturally poised, the sort of person who, after speaking about death and dying on a public-radio call-in show last year, not only read the comments that poured onto the show’s site later, but responded, compassionately, to each one. In person he is blessed with a blazing magnetism that can’t be overstated — a recent acquaintance described him to me, only half jokingly, as “the most magnificent human in the world” — and could pass easily as a Hollywood leading man, with tousled, slightly silvering dark hair and a dimpled grin. He is also missing half of his left arm and has two prosthetic legs.
In 1990, while an undergraduate at Princeton, Miller was out late with some friends and decided, for the fun of it, to climb atop an electric train car. The electrical current arced from a piece of equipment into his wristwatch, sending 11,000 volts through his arm and out his feet, nearly killing him. (Miller still wears the watch occasionally; it works.)
His recovery was long and taxing, but the injury intensified his intellectual curiosity about death and suffering. When Miller returned to school, he began studying art history, fascinated by how artists make sense of the darkness and pain of the human experience. Then, after playing volleyball in the Paralympic Games and founding a tea company, he went to medical school and eventually found his calling in palliative care, especially for terminal patients. (He still practices medicine part-time at ucsf.) Miller felt he was uniquely qualified. “A lot of physicians will work their whole life on a disease that they’ll never have,” he says. Miller, at least, had come as close to dying as anyone could
Paul Bennett was drawn to Miller immediately. Miller was a physician, intimately familiar with how bodies fail and shut down, but he’d also spent the two decades since his accident attuning himself to the same aesthetic dimensions and deficiencies of the dying process that Bennett was now obsessed with. That is, Miller had a profound head start when it came to redesigning death, and he and Bennett quickly fell into a wide-ranging dialogue. In an email to Bennett early last year, for example, Miller wrote: “I’d say that humans have thrived by turning every need — every vulnerability — into something in its own right.” Shelter becomes architecture, he noted. Reproduction gets wrapped in romance and love. And “think of all the cultural significance and artistry and labor that goes into [eating].” Miller wanted to bring that same creative power and meaning-making to death, but he had trouble finding a sounding board for those ideas in the medical community. He was as grateful to find Bennett as Bennett was to find him
Last February, Bennett invited Miller to an orientation for a small team of Ideo designers on the work he was hoping to undertake. Because it felt wrong to talk about death in a conference room, some junior designers took it upon themselves to build a Death Yurt at the center of Ideo’s studio — a black, candlelit enclosure reachable only by crawling through a long, dark tunnel. (“It was like a sweat lodge,” Bennett says.) As homework, Bennett had asked everyone to design their own funeral, and he kicked off the discussion. He explained he’s always been terrified by the knowledge that he’ll die alone. (Bennett’s partner is 15 years older than he is, and they have no children.) But lately he had been reshaping the image in his mind. If he was going to die alone, he said, he’d like to do it outside, in Iceland, under the quivering brilliance of the Northern Lights.
Huddled in the Death Yurt, Miller felt simultaneously invigorated and dubious. On the one hand, this was precisely the sort of more joyous conversation he wanted to encourage people to have long in advance of their own deaths. (“I felt like I was watching Paul be converted to the possibilities,” he says.) Miller had seen firsthand that, because we spend our entire lives avoiding thinking about death, when it finally comes into view, there’s a thicket of panic, denial, or disbelief to cut through before people can focus, more mindfully, on the experience and begin to make decisions to improve their last days. Then, of course, you still have to reconcile those hopes with the exigencies of the health care system, which can be torturously inflexible. When you sit with a dying person, Miller says, “Time is always in the room. … At best, you’re able to salvage some peace or comfort for a moment.”
And yet Miller also knew that these more imaginative conversations about death needed to be channeled in just the right way. In the Death Yurt, Bennett and his team seemed to be caught up in what Miller recognized as the “endocrine rush” of finally facing death head-on. That exuberance, while helpful, needs to be moved past; otherwise, it can wind up derailing more practical conversations, or alienating people on aesthetic or socioeconomic grounds. For one thing, Miller later told me, “Paul’s Iceland idea presupposes you can time all that” — that you could fly him over and wheel him out at just the right moment, then cue the Lights. “You don’t want to shit on somebody’s beautiful idea,” Miller said, but “if you start talking about dying well or dying a ‘good death,’ then you also set people up to fail at death
Miller seemed to bring that same sobering perspective to his tour of the After I Go workshop. At one point, the lead Ideo designer on the project, Denise Burchell, was talking him through a potential After-Gifting feature the team would eventually call Remembrance Maps: walking tours of sentimental locations, left to loved ones either as actual maps or location-based software. For example, your deceased grandfather could ping you to suggest you go sit on a particular park bench where he and your grandmother used to enjoy the view, 300 yards from where you’re standing. The power of features like this, Burchell explained, was that you wouldn’t be showering your loved ones with “generic memories” but “personally relevant ones.” “These,” she said, “are your memories.”
“Can I ask you a question?” Miller interjected politely. “The quest for immortality in general is very problematic,” he began. He seemed to be feeling the same mix of hopefulness and ambivalence he’d experienced in the Death Yurt. He wanted to know if they’d thought through the implications of catering to what, essentially, is our narcissism. Fundamentally, Miller’s work is about helping people let go of that fierce attachment to the self — the urge to hang on to it at all costs. Was Gaffney’s team finding they could tap into that impulse in a purely positive way? “Is there something good in that compulsion?” he asked.
Burchell seemed taken aback by the question. They hadn’t launched the app yet, not even in beta. “At this point,” she said, “we just have hunches.”
By the end of the summer, After I Go was effectively dead.
There had been remarkable progress before then, however. Gaffney’s vision of the app had sharpened. What they were building, he realized, was a “private social network,” a lockbox where families could collaboratively collect and curate their memories. It was as much a place for living people as for dead ones. Just as sites like Ancestry.com allowed people to discover the identities of their ancestors, he told me, uploading material to Gaffney’s product would allow people to one day discover the stories of their ancestors. All the functionality of the app — they had renamed it Keeps by this point — started to snap into place around that insight; it felt full of promise. But even as Keeps started humming along conceptually, Gaffney’s belief in it was crumbling.
For one thing, there was uncertainty about how Keeps could ever be monetized. And it was proving impossible to hire the prototypical gang of slavish, single-minded twenty-something coders to work for the company. (Young people, it turned out, weren’t enthusiastic about building a digital lockbox for baby boomers to stuff their memories into; unlike apps that called you a car or delivered food to your door at 2 a.m., its mission was totally unrelatable.) Meanwhile, Gaffney was realizing it could take another year of development, maybe more, to build this new, sprawling incarnation of the app he was imagining — and that he would need to raise the money to fund that process. He told me, “I started to feel like I’d probably feel miserable trying to make that work, rather than feeling confident that we would make it work.”
Then, just as all these unnerving roadblocks came into view, Gaffney was offered a job as senior vice president of information technology at Home Depot in Atlanta. He took it, putting Keeps on hold indefinitely. And by September, there he was: smiling on Home Depot’s senior-leadership web page, wearing one of those orange aprons over his dress shirt.
“You can imagine how disappointed people here are,” one Ideo staffer told me when I first heard the news. Paul Bennett had been imagining a massive cultural shift and had invested at least a share of that ambition in Gaffney’s app. But for Gaffney, closing down Keeps had been a simple, unemotional calculation: He’d sized up the obstacles, decided it wasn’t worth it, and walked away. He wasn’t on a quest to confront some metaphysical dilemma, after all; he was building a consumer product in Silicon Valley. Keeps was just a startup, and a seed-stage one at that. Startups collapse every day.
From a business standpoint, Keeps had arguably done everything right. The app kept pivoting, as apps must. It feverishly chased what it thought we wanted most, until satisfying those desires seemed too difficult, at which point it suddenly pivoted into oblivion.
And that trajectory felt familiar. It’s hard for any of us to face down what’s difficult, frightening, or fragile in life, no matter how earnestly we may want to internalize and reimagine it. Gradually, we get distracted; we drift away from what we suspect might really matter.
Bennett hoped the app could lead us out of that problem. And it might have. It did, however, wind up illustrating the problem exquisitely.
Bennett moved on quickly. He was proud of the work Ideo did for Paul Gaffney and harbored no hard feelings. “Paul had other things he wanted to do,” Bennett told me. “The lesson was, you can’t just go into death lightly.”
That fall and winter, Bennett continued to proselytize about death and design. He talked to Ideo’s health care clients. He talked to philanthropists. He spoke at the launch event for a “healthtech incubator” in Chicago, for a crowd of 200 people. He talked to a “mortician in Los Angeles who wants to do groovy, Six Feet Under rock ’n’ roll funerals” and to a visual artist who’d designed a bodysuit made of fungi as an alternative means of burial. (“You become this organic sculpture at the end!” Bennett explained.) For the most part, these conversations were casual, but in January Bennett told me his goal for 2015 was to convert several of them into actual business propositions. Already he’d landed what might have been his ideal client all along: BJ Miller and the Zen Hospice Project.
Zen Hospice had hired Ideo for the better part of a year to work on several ambitious fronts at once. Miller told me Ideo would first help them “better articulate ourselves to ourselves” — zero in on what makes Zen Hospice’s philosophy and style of care valuable, and enhance it even further. A team of designers was already prototyping ways to improve the experience of residents and staff at Zen Hospice, including dreaming up new, more imaginative physical spaces designed specifically for dying. Then Ideo would help Zen Hospice to step into the public sphere as a potential model for reforming end-of-life care. Zen Hospice wanted to enlarge the public’s appreciation for how much more meaningful death could be. It wanted to build a coalition of similarly minded palliative-care workers and organizations, lobby for more enlightened health care policies, and get insurers to cover care at facilities like its Guest House, laying the economic groundwork for more of them to arise. “I think,” Miller told me modestly, “we’re interested in gestating something like a movement.”
By mid-January, the company had dispatched two researchers to the Guest House, where they’d spend two weeks observing and interviewing staff and volunteers and speaking with families of former residents. Zen Hospice was a small, bootstrapping organization that had never had the luxury of stepping back and codifying its organizational identity, much less a strategy for explaining its mission to outsiders. And so the two women from Ideo — an anthropologist and a “business designer” — were working up an ethnography of the place, allowing Ideo to key into the essence of Zen Hospice and then build out its brand. Dana Cho, an Ideo partner who oversaw the research, told me it’s always a challenge to hew through the stale vernacular that builds up inside any field and get people to loosen up and truly reflect on the work they do every day. And so the researchers came armed with props. In one exercise, Guest House staffers were shown pictures of celebrities — Julia Roberts, Oprah, Dame Judi Dench — and asked to describe what qualities Zen Hospice shared with each.
Ideo, meanwhile, had encouraged Miller to reach out to ted, and he was soon invited to speak on the final day of the ted conference in Vancouver in March. This was a tremendous opportunity: Bennett and Miller both sensed that the scattered but intensifying conversation about death in the culture was searching for some center of gravity. To become a genuine movement, it needed some stake to wrap around and grow — an ambassador like Miller, or an organization like Zen Hospice, or even an entire community, like San Francisco. “San Francisco feels like a very logical place to me for death to be normed,” Bennett told me. “It’s a place where radicalism was born. Why can’t the radicalism of death be something we help build here?” It’s a clumsy analogy, maybe, but it was easy to imagine Zen Hospice emerging as a kind of Chez Panisse of death, and Miller as death’s Alice Waters.
The firm’s partnership with Paul Gaffney had fizzled because Gaffney’s startup was a business with no ideological center. He wasn’t married to any particular idea; as Gaffney once told me, he was only “married to delivering real value.” Miller, on the other hand, was delivering compassion. His whole life seemed to cling to a certain hard-to-articulate ideal — a determination since his accident, as he put it, to live a full life and stay rooted in real things. Even as he opened his organization to Ideo’s efforts, in fact, he felt conflicted about being cast as a spokesman. He still considered himself a relative newcomer to palliative care and was too introspective, and too humble, to crave any celebrity. In short, what made him reticent was his integrity. It was also what convinced Bennett this could work
An encouraging push and pull seemed to have developed between the two men. A year earlier, Bennett’s crusade against death seemed to be motivated entirely by his frustration with the way his father died. But over time it was evolving into something more nuanced, inclusive, and humane. When I asked what Bennett hoped to accomplish with Zen Hospice, he told me, simply: “Best-case scenario is that more people in more places talk about death in a design-rich way.” Miller, meanwhile, confessed he’d previously dismissed branding as “some kind of trickery,” but that since starting work with Ideo, he had begun “to appreciate it as its own craft” — a clarifying process, and a tool for doing good. He was fine-tuning his ted talk, committing himself to his place on that stage.
In mid-February, Miller and a few of his board members arrived at Ideo’s San Francisco office for the same species of strategy session that Bennett had held to launch the work with After I Go. The tone of this meeting was much less rambunctious, though, and it was held in a smaller, more minimalist room around a loosely arranged circle of bare metal chairs. (I noticed no one used the word convening, either; everyone just called it a workshop.) Wooden boxes of Sharpies and brightly colored Post-its waited on a table at the back of the room. This time, it felt like something might stick
Our mortality is not something to be overcome. It is integral to our humanity.
By Allison Arieff
Consider this fact of modern life: Nearly all of the technological products that we buy and use are designed with planned obsolescence in mind. They are built specifically to fail after a relatively short period — one year, two, maybe five. If you doubt that, think about how often you have to replace your smartphone. Gadgets are designed to die.
The irony, however, is that the same Silicon Valley culture that produces these gadgets seems to be obsessed with living forever.
Today’s “life extension” movement includes venture capitalists like the tech billionaire Peter Thiel pouring money into anti-aging and life extension start-ups. (While the rumor that Mr. Thiel receives regular blood transfusions from 18-year olds turned out to be false, there is, of course, an actual company — Ambrosia Plasma — that provides young plasma infusions for $8,000 a liter.) And Google launched the biotech company Calico to increase its “understanding of the biology that controls lifespan,” and bolstered that goal by conducting research on the long-living naked mole rat, a species that shows little to no signs of aging.
In recent years, the lure of disrupting death has become a hot industry. Paul Bennett, a partner at the design consultancy IDEO, was among the first to tap into it. A profile in The California Sunday Magazine in 2015 described an epiphany he had: “ ‘Oh,’ he told himself. ‘You need to redesign death.’ ” Since then, an entire new market has flourished. Death as a conduit for innovation. Death as a participatory exhibition. Death as the organizing principle for networking dinners. Death as an app.
There are now people who refer to themselves as “longevity entrepreneurs,” who see death not as a problem but rather as something to be eliminated. Instead of pursuing a good death, why die at all? Beneath the surface of this quest for eternal life seems to be an unwillingness on the part of its proponents to imagine the world without themselves in it.
In a very fundamental way, this tendency is inhuman.
In her new book, “Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer,” Barbara Ehrenreich writes: “You can think of death bitterly or with resignation, as a tragic interruption of your life, and take every possible measure to postpone it. Or, more realistically, you can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and seize it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.”
I was taken by Ms. Ehrenreich’s formulation, this notion that our experience of life, though unique to us, is just part of a broader continuum. Our time here is but a blip, and when we leave, the great world continues to spin. As such, the appreciation of our own lives has much to do with the ever-increasing awareness of its relative brevity. It is this — an awareness and acceptance of our own mortality — that makes us human. And it is the impetus, I’d argue, for living our lives to the fullest.
There was a brief period in my own life — less than two years — in which I got married, lost my mother to cancer, had a miscarriage, bought a house and gave birth to a child. Experiencing all this in so short a time span made me feel almost too human. That barrage of ends and beginnings left me intensely aware of the fragility of life as well as enthralled by the glorious intensity of it: I lost and simultaneously gained so much. Today this awareness of the temporal nature of it all leaves me determined to seize, observe and interact with the days that remain. It is the knowledge of how quickly, sometimes tragically, things can change or disappear that fuels my urgency to be in the present.
As a teenager I remember lamenting how horrible and unfair life was, only to have my parents respond that one couldn’t appreciate the good without experiencing the bad. Back then, hearing that was annoying; as an adult, it remains annoying, but it is also completely true.
It is rare for us to give much thought to the challenges we would face if there were no end to our time on earth. Would the condition of our bodies affect the condition of our minds? Would everyone live forever, or just those with the means to afford it? Could you opt out of eternal life? Would inequality dissolve, or would it become even more of an intractable problem? Would we still gain the empathy, wisdom and insight that can come with age?
Technological breakthroughs can be life-changing. But I believe that our humanity — our humanness — is inextricably intertwined with the fact of our mortality. And no scientific fountain of youth can ever cause that to change.