When I attended the End Well Symposium, I met Brad Wolfe, which initiated a five-month journey with Reimagine. Reimagine is an organization that puts on city-wide explorations of death and celebrations of life through creativity and conversation.
I've had the enlightening opportunity of working with Reimagine's team to curate 170+ events in San Francisco exploring death through art, discussion, meditation, comedy, and more. In partnership with IDEO and the City & Council of San Francisco, Reimagine created an unique, intimate space where participants tackled death as a taboo, and considered and discussed the future of how we die.
What were we doing?
Reimagine's aim was to 1. tackle the taboo of death, thereby 2. allowing people to properly prepare for their own. Creating an environment where this was possible meant holistically promoting a sense of comfort and support in the people involved, in the events themselves, and in the materials we provided.
As an experience designer, my challenge was to harness these objectives into one package, a physical package every participant could take home with them after attending an event. In it would contain information on steps to prepare for your own end of life, bigger questions to consider about death, and a way to celebrate lost lives through words and pictures. (Pictured in the last photo above)
Normalizing topics around death provides a proper environment for honesty
Attitudes towards death are of a very prescriptive nature. There are certain ways you feel about death, and certain things you say about death. And because of the taboos, there aren't many people to tell/prove to you otherwise.
However, Reimagine's wholly accepting environment welcomed a wide range of thought around death. People from diverse backgrounds came together to talk about this one topic: politicians, physicians, musicians, comedians, artists, designers, and more. This exposed visitors to an exceptional range of opinions and thoughts about death and dying. And while there are many things unique and unprecedented about this environment we created, one of the most previous was the capacity for honesty.
This environment allowed participants to see and hear unpopular opinions about death, and also express their own. I saw participants opening about their conflicted feelings about losing somebody their shared a contentious relationship with or procrastinating or delaying their grief. Those who experience death or grief unconventionally were allowed a space to finally connect with someone about these feelings, to finally gain closure.
Death and Tone
One of the issues of death as a topic was the question of tone. Death is multi-faceted, as are the challenges around talking about it, and responding to it. A sensitive topic demands sensitive consideration.
How do you talk about death in a stand-up comedy routine? How do you talk about death in the context of psychedelic mushrooms? How do you talk about death in VR? How do you talk about your own death, or my death? And how do you talk about all of these as a collective? Despite the sheer number of events and masses involved, we tried to cultivate a personal touch in these subtleties.
So how is it that a stand-up act explored death without seeming facetious? Comedian Chris Garcia did a really good job of this by telling the story of his father's death. Chris capitlized on how much appreciation for life he fostered in the final months of his father's life. He spoke about how his father's Alzheimers diagnosis pushed him to cherish every moment he spent with his father. This experience brought upon a realization in Chris that he passed on to us: Really, his dad has been dying his whole life, and that he could've been cherishing every moment, even before his father's prognosis.
The comedy act became a call to action: accept death, and appreciate life.
Accepting dying opens our eyes to living
The perception of death lived a different life during Reimagine week. With the assumption that death was to be discussed, discussion of it evolved from a morbid death sentence to substantial thought about preferences, wishes, hopes, emotion, and life.
Instead of lamenting at feelings of loss, people embraced it, discussing reasons behind it, and ways to overcome it. Overtime, it became clear that, to a certain extent, death is what you make of it. Death is simply a part of life, and to embrace death is to embrace life.
Through pain and loss, death creates a community of support
The Reimagine events became spaces where people cultivated a heightened sensitivity to painful, difficult emotions. This sensitivity opened stimulated potential for understanding. I began to see that death generates commonality; By talking about death, we learn how to accept it, but we also begin to learn how to accept others.
Whether it's at a funeral, or family gathering, or an event such as Reimagine, death can incite a communal experience for the living. Though shared pain, the loss of one can bring about the love and support of others.
This phenomenon was not limited to the participants of Reimagine week, it also occured within the Reimagine organization, throughout the planning process. The event not only brought together these thousands of participants, it also connected me with Brad and numerous other loving people who've had a significant experience with death and fostered a love for people, an understanding for emotions.
I began to see all the love that forms around pain, and the life that grows around death.
How did it go?
With thousands of people in attendance and over 170 events, Reimagine SF was a resounding success. It has been covered by local and national press, and shows promise for the years to come. Reimagine will be hosting a similar event in New York in October, 2018.
The keepsake I designed was a success as well, many took multiple home for their family and friends. It was truly an honor to have the opportunity to craft an object and experience to help people prepare for end of life and become more comfortable with death (both as a topic and as a reality). It was beautiful to see people take this package home with them, with plans to share.
Reimagine taught me about community, love and pain, collaboration, adversity, and more. I learned how to harness pain to make it something else. I learned how to express and respond to emotion, and how to employ that when crafting an experience.
For more information on this organization and future events, visit www.letsreimagine.org