From how we prepare for it, to how we wish to be remembered, death - and all of the business that goes with it - is under scrutiny. The old ways are starting to look mismatched with how people are living (and, yes, dying). New narratives and innovations are emerging. Crowd DNA founder Andy Crysell gets beyond the 'cultural censorship' and explores this most taboo of topics...
04 June, 2019
What comes after wellness? Death, largely. And death is currently having a moment, with a growth in media commentary, and of products and services that chime with a reassessment of exactly how we go about dying.
Broadly, if we’re to call this a movement, it goes by the name of ‘death positive’. New ways to prepare for death. New ways to mourn death. And certainly a break from – in western society, at least – the almost unswerving desire to do anything but ever talk about death.
With interest growing over the last decade, and now reaching something of a tipping point, those who champion death positivity talk about getting away from a dominant ‘cultural censorship’ that ultimately does us all more harm than good.
For instance, should Beyond’s ‘satirical funeral adverts’ really have been banned from Transport For London last year? Perhaps for ropey execution – but probably not for the message therein.
Sub-themes at play here include spiritual unbundling – pick-and-mixing your attitude to death from different strains of religion and belief system – and sourcing ‘death wisdom’ from other cultures. Death psychedelics – experimenting with psilocybins to transform final chapter experiences. And green burials – leaving this planet without destroying this planet
Examples of how ‘death positive’ manifests itself in products, services and instances of disruption are manifold. We feature a selection of them here, divided as The Discourse, The Journey, The Paperwork and When You’re Gone.
Core to this sense of change is how we talk about death. We’re seeing myriad examples in the area, from the highly localized to the more global. Reimagine – End Of Life is a festival that dubs itself as ‘a week of exploring big questions about life and death’. With their next production set for San Francisco in October 2019, they explore via the angles of In Wonder (reflecting on and reconsidering what it means to die), In Preparation (how we ready for the experience, from the logistical to the emotional factors) and In Remembrance (exploring grief and how we relate to grief).
The Death Cafes nonprofit organisation, meanwhile, takes the topic into particularly intimate environs. With almost 9,000 café pop-ups in 65 countries conducted thus far, the ambition of this ‘social franchise’ it to create an informal and agenda-free platform for respectful and accessible conversation about death – with the added benefit of tea and cake. Their website includes a how-to guide to running your own Death Café.
Curating all manner of fascinating content on the theme is TalkDeath.com – a hub for ‘positive and constructive conversations around death and dying’. Aiming to bridge the gap between death professionals and the wider public, head there for podcasts, commentary on the role of race in funeral rituals and even death positive holiday season gifts.
The WeCroak app also seeks to get the conversation around death out there in the open. Inspired by a Bhutanese folk saying – ‘to be a happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily’ – they’re on hand to, at random intervals, send you five invitations each day to think about death – and therefore hopefully think just a bit more about life, too. Find happiness by contemplating your own mortality is how they, rather neatly, define it.
Beyond talking about death, quite a formidable industry has built up over the last century to meet needs, and make money, from our final days – and from what happens to us when we’re gone. There’s a vast amount of disruption happening here, which should hardly be surprising given the minimal change that’s occurred in the preceding decades.
Witness, for instance, the growing interest in ‘transition guides’. Sort of like midwives in reverse, the job of these death coaches is, essentially, to steer the individual – and their loved ones – through the final days of life. As you might imagine, it’s a career space that’s open to interpretation; one that in varying measures seeks to offer practical, emotional and spiritual support. This might all sound a little ‘fake guru’ right now – but it would be no surprise if such services become increasingly normalised in the near future.
Your death ceremony used to come offered in two orderly forms in the west: would you like to be cremated or would you like to be buried? Now, though, options are increasing, and the quest for greener ways to exit is one of the chief drivers of change. There are companies, such as Capsula Mundi, that place ashes in biodegradable pod infused with a tree seed; thus hoping to create memorial forests instead of cemeteries.
If you’d rather show off, you’re better calling on Heavenly Stars Fireworks. They’ll use your ashes in bespoke pyrotechnic displays that will make sure you go about with a bang.
Or you can aim for convenience with Solace. The brainchild of two ex Nike designers, this service allows your loved ones to call, email or message 24/7, with Solace picking up your ashes and promising a seven to 10 day return in an understated, recyclable box.
Outside of the processing issues of what to do with ashes, the rituals are under scrutiny, too, with non-secular options growing in number. As we increasingly feel capable of creating unique personal identities in life, so it goes that we want the same of the rituals that mark our passing. Thus people are bringing their life passions to the fore – music, fashion, food – and devising unique last act ceremonies.
Quite where this takes us remains to be seen. Replacing centuries-old traditions is not an easy thing to do overnight. And as much as we crave individuality, there’s a need for group belonging that somehow needs to be met in these occasions.
Death can be painful. Particularly the admin. But the innovators are getting busy here also, with a fintech subset particularly prevalent. One of the most impressive is Fairwill – a will writing service that has raised £7.5m to ‘disrupt the death industry’.
If discourse around death and dying becomes less closed in times ahead, the likelihood of people exploring new ways to deal with inheritance and the many logistical elements of calling time on life will be significant.
As co-founder and CEO Dan Garrett explains: “Dying is the largest financial event of your life, with £1 trillion expected to pass between generations over the next years. It’s a serious amount to protect and pass on correctly. And yet it is largely ignored.”
Currently we remember people through photographs and through memorial formats (stones, plaques, urns) that have endured for centuries. But change is afoot here also. With tattoos having gone from a subcultural accoutrement to the absolute bullseye of mainstream in the last two decades, it makes sense that people are looking to preserve these markers of self identity after death. Save My Ink Forever is a company serving this need. Tattoos are surgically removed, removed for preservation, then typically mounted and framed behind UV-protective glass.
If music is more your thing, head to AndVinyly (the death industry 2.0 certainly has got its puns down pat). Blending ashes into the vinyl, the recordings are custom-made, generally mixing favourite tunes with audio recordings sourced from voicemails and home movies
Concerned more with maintaining our voice and memorialisation after death, SafeBeyond is a particularly intriguing (if slightly unnerving) offer. Dubbed the ‘Dropbox of the hereafter’, it functions as a digital time capsule, with the capability of dispatching messages you create (pre-death!) to mark dates and events, such as anniversaries, graduations or holidays, and also locations; messages activated when a loved one arrives, say, at the Eiffel Tower. It can deal with the aforementioned admin stuff, too, providing easy access to your digital assets.
It wouldn’t be the late 2010s without there being an element of ideological warfare to discuss here. In one corner: the death positive advocates; those who want us to reassess how we go about passing.
In the other: Silicon Valley and a biotech industry that, instead, is set on ‘curing death’; on radically extending life. Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Theil and Elon Musk are among those set on saving us from the end.
At the very least, those on the wellness side look set to provide a powerful counterview to that championed by tech’s overlords – one centred on arguing that improved health should mean we do more with our lives, rather than near endlessly extending our lives.
And so with death – the build-up, the moment itself, what comes next – under such major re-evaluation, it’s highly probable that we’re just at the early stages of the overhaul of an industry that so steadfastly avoided change for so very long.
But while it’s fascinating to explore what’s going on within the death industry, as the change in cultural censorship around the topic gains momentum, it will also be worth looking out for where death reaches outside of that industry.
Though it might not be immediately obvious what any of this could possibly mean for an IKEA or a Diageo, a Twitter or a Unilever – be that in the products and experiences they create, or in the messages and sentiment they communicate – future-tuned innovation work is unlikely to leave this space untouched. If we’re going to open up the conversation around death, something that impacts on us all, then brands will, too.
The World Health Organization forecasts that global deaths will jump from 56 million in 2015 to 70 million by 2030
The average American funeral costs around $9,000, while in Japan it can reach many tens of thousands
In the US alone, it’s estimated the death care market will reach revenues of around $68bn by 2023
04 June, 2019