After reading about Zen Hospice and IDEO's initiative to redesign death, my ears have perked up whenever I've come across something that seems to connect. And I guess it struck a nerve because my ears have practically been in perked position ever since.
The central question, “How might we provide the best care possible and design a better [dying] experience, for everyone?” seems vast, audacious, impossible. How can we redesign death? Isn’t that for God, for Mother Nature? Still, in all that impossibility, there is something essential about it, something calling me to action. To resign ourselves to the status quo is to operate under the illusion those who came before us were not the designers of our current experience, when in fact they must have been—however conscious, unconscious or divine their inspiration. And it therefore stands that we are now responsible for making a contribution to what dying looks like in the future. Given that death is an unquestionably major part of life (biologically-speaking a feature of it, not a bug), shouldn’t we pay at least as much attention to improving that experience as we do to designing future modes of transportation or onboarding users to our latest app?
What follows are mostly questions, because it still feels too soon for answers. Then again, maybe it isn’t too soon. Given that dying doesn’t really have a deadline (or rather, that all 7 billion of us have our own unknowable deadlines), my first question is, “How do we know when it’s time to move beyond the research phase into ideation and prototyping?” Have we all spent too much time thinking that we have nothing to test? Is the pursuit of the perfect ending keeping us from a better one?
A few weeks ago, prompted by National Healthcare Decisions Day (but well after the clever April 16th date due to my reluctance to bring it up), my wife and I had a conversation about end-of-life plans during which we uncovered what is to me a crucial distinction between death and loss. The “about-to-die” individual and their “not-about-to-die” family and friends seemingly have such different needs, different interests, different fears. Could these be two separate problems for which there might not be overlapping—or even aligning—solutions? Or are they too entwined to treat as distinct from one another? Is death an individual experience or a communal one? And what of spirituality? What happens when the two parties don't share the most fundamental view about the world and their place in it?
Days later, as if to answer my questions with more questions, my mother (an Episcopal priest who worked for a decade as a spiritual counselor for the Nathan Adelson Hospice in Nevada) emailed me a Huffington Post article about The Future of Spirituality. In it, David Bryce Yaden (a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania) makes predictions about how spiritual practice will evolve in the years to come. It’s worth a read in its entirety for a view into how science and technology are changing how we see and practice spirituality, but I was most intrigued by the idea of an emerging spiritual plurality. He writes:
Ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, nationality, or ideological differences will not form a basis for excluding people from spiritual communities.
The increasing secularity of American life and rejection of spiritual hegemony provides an opportunity for introducing new models of the end-of-life experience, and frees us from the rituals and taboos of the past, while at the same time might create a painful transition period during which the gap between children and their parents, the devout and the irreligious, only widens.
Pew Research’s latest study on America’s changing religious landscape adds quantitative data to the picture, reporting that the percentage of American adults who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated has jumped dramatically in recent years—from 16.1% in 2007 to 22.8% in 2014. This increase has come at the expense of Christian (mainline Protestant and Catholic) affiliation, and is largely fueled by a growing cohort of unaffiliated young people (the “Millennials,” naturally). In fact, in raw numbers the religiously unaffiliated adults (56 million) now outnumber all major religious groups but one: evangelical Protestants (62.2 million).
So what does this all mean? What does this portend? Perhaps just some more questions for now:
- How might the conversations, rituals, fears, and (yes) business opportunities around death and dying change in a world in which a growing number of people no longer identify as affiliated with any organized religion?
- What does the end-of-life process look like when parents and children increasingly no longer see eye-to-eye on matters of spirituality?
- What's driving these shifts in religious life? Technology, education, cultural diversity?
- Can we redesign “planned” death (and dying) without somehow tackling accidental, sudden, unexpected, violent, mass death?
- Does the fact that death is perhaps the single experience (other than birth) that connects all life to one another suggest a responsibility to design a shared experience, or does it allow for the near-infinite personalization of the experience? Put another way, are we looking for communion or customization?
Finally, what if we can’t get enough people to be “open to the idea of discussing death. Daring to look at it, and bringing [their] own light to it?”
I hope we can. I think it’s important that we try.