Death is one of those things.
Not that we can design ourselves out of dying - although many have tried - but designers are questioning the processes and rituals built around death that we, for the most part, take as a done deal. After we die, we are buried in a box or cremated, sprinkled or stored. We have a service, maybe. But why?
"Why does the coffin look like it does?" asks Jason Lempieri, an architect and industrial designer who runs his own Center City firm, ReThinkTANK. "How about the funeral procession? How many accidents do those cause?"
Like many objects and rituals having to do with death, these are ages old. The coffin and the funeral procession are ancient. Actually, most of death's trappings make little sense in a modern world - open land for cemeteries is shrinking, for one - but for obvious reasons, their redesign is a lot harder to sell to the typical consumer than a thermostat's. Few people are likely to sign up as early adopters.
Lempieri's interest in death and mourning dates to a lecture he heard while he was studying architecture at the Pratt Institute in the early '90s. Cultural anthropologist Camilo José Vergara photographs cities that are under stress, and he spoke of Detroit, with all its empty buildings, as a dead city. Lempieri wondered how a building marked for dead might serve the dead. When he moved back to Philadelphia to get his master's degree, he wrote a thesis that was a pragmatic, poetic proposal to bring the Divine Lorraine on North Broad Street back to life as the Divine Sanctuary - a columbarium for Philadelphians' remains.
The result solves two problems: reviving a demoralized urban structure, and creating a purposeful place (goodbye to the closet or mantel) for a loved one's ashes.
At the Divine Lorraine, Lempieri envisions ribbons of open-sided, urn-holding cubes winding around the building's U-shaped floor plan. People could customize their own vessel before they die, working with a ceramist, glassblower, or other artisan to craft a personalized urn. The columbarium would be a kind of indoor memorial to the regular Joe and Jane, where visitors download an app to hear recorded stories from and about the deceased.
"We know all about famous people," Lempieri says, "but for the everyday person, when they're gone, they're gone. It would be nice to allow them to have the same kind of celebrity."
Maybe the Divine Lorraine's chance for a death redesign has passed - developer Eric Blumenthal plans to convert the building into apartments. Yet Lempieri's columbarium solution could be replicated in other cities with similarly majestic crumbling buildings.
In the meantime, the "unhiding of death" movement is catching the attention of other designers.
The Action Mill, a Philadelphia-based firm, has always functioned like the design version of a management consultancy, helping clients - from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the European Biennial of Contemporary Art - "solve thorny problems," says creative director Nick Jehlen. Now they want to encourage people to contemplate end-of-life issues - before the end of their lives.
"Most of the design field is focused on younger people and younger people's issues," says Georgia Guthrie, a designer with the Action Mill. Think of the projects you read about in design magazines - the latest chair, kitchen tool, or corporate rebranding.
"Inclusive design" - products and environments created to address the entire arc of a lifetime, not just for the demographics with the most disposable income - has only recently commanded serious attention. Michael Graves, who won acclaim as an architect and then for designing housewares for Target, is now designing bathtub safety bars to help older consumers age in place. Helping people navigate a good and desired "quality of death" may be one of design's next frontiers.
So far, the Action Mill has launched a blog - deathandesign.com - to amplify the efforts of others who are redesigning death. There's Salle des Departs, a morgue in Garches, France, with a contemplative, minimalist interior and background music commissioned from a composer. From Switzerland, there are Death Cafes, pop-up events that encourage people to hold facilitated discussions to "make the most of their (finite) lives." Candy Chang's "Before I Die" tool kit helps people re-create in their communities what she painted on the side of an abandoned house in New Orleans, a write-in grid with 80 iterations of the sentence "Before I die I want to ______." By the next day, passersby had filled in all the blanks.
Action Mill's own death and design projects are still in the conceptual phase, but the team is exploring how to get people to engage earlier and be prepared: Maybe that takes the form of an online game to spark discussions about end-of-life care, or a set of rituals to ease the process of moving into a nursing home or assisted-living facility.
"In our society, we don't talk about death until we're in crisis. But doing so earlier is going to give us a whole different point of view on the rest of our lives," says Action Mill partner Jethro Heiko. "Having that relationship to mortality informs our day-to-day, how we raise our children - it allows us to be more authentic in our exchanges."
If that is true, a redesign could be a matter of life or death.
Caroline Tiger is a design writer in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetiger.