A better-designed death

For the past 15+ years, I have been fully invested in running (owning) a “traditional” funeral home in small town Quebec. I think my team and I are doing a satisfactory job and that the families who come to us are pleased with our services. On the other hand, I also see missed opportunities where we could elevate the essential human experience of a memorial to a more significant process.

This can be explained by many things: First, funeral businesses (including my own) are under-delivering, mostly because they are still able to operate and exist in a world that has not been disrupted. Second, because death is a taboo subject and people do not want to think about it before they are forced to.

I’ve been analyzing funeral businesses in Quebec, Canada, parts of the USA and Europe and I think we are at a tipping point regarding the way funerals should be experienced. Every single person I talk to about the funerals they have attended, has the same indifferent attitude towards them… They go to the rituals and, for the most part, they do not listen to the ceremony because they don’t feel connected. The rituals aren’t well designed for our modern social behaviours. So when we have to choose funeral options for someone close to us who has died, we naturally want something else that we have experienced. The reality is that often there are no real alternatives. Funeral homes mostly offer the same things in different packages, different spaces but rarely in a better-designed fashion.

This is why I am investing in a startup that addresses the way we experience rituals, death, and mourning.

But first a little background about rituals.

Background

Humans are born, they live, and then they die. It has been this way since the beginning of time, and it will always be this way. There’s no point getting too philosophical about it; it’s something we have always had to deal with. When the “first” humans saw their fellow humans die without any sense of understanding why it happened, we can imagine that it was a traumatic event for them to experience, to say the least.

Fast forward thousands of years — humans the world over have developed some ways of coping with death: A concept that to them is still unfair, vastly unexplained and surely still a traumatic experience. They produced simple gestures with symbolic meanings (such as burning incense), which helped to comfort them through events as unexplainable as death. These gestures helped them grieve whenever someone died. There are no set gestures, only gestures meaningful to those mourning the deceased and that are part of their culture. Overall this is an oversimplified explanation of rituals, but it does explain the basics!

Rituals are “social constructions” derived from human thought and genius, which are transmitted from generation to generation with the aim of “anchoring” human existence and reassuring them. Rituals were invented to civilize human needs. They translate memory into the act and a search for meaning into action.

Rituals were created precisely to build an acceptable framework around existence, hence the need for a personal and competent entourage that listens, is empathic and trustworthy, to provide access to these rituals

Fast forward again, and religions have “sacralized” this need for comfort into their beliefs and standardized practices. We mostly accept standard practice without ever asking if it is really “right” for us.

The lengths people have gone in our country and in the West vis-à-vis the established religions (i.e., the sacramentalization of the rites of passage) must not make us lose sight of the importance of these ceremonies - which overflow from the religious framework - and the risk incurred in removing them.

While many people still and will always stick to the known religious rituals, it’s not the case for everyone. In Quebec for instance, the Church plays much less of a central role in people’s lives than it did 50 years ago. Thus, people are less prone to choosing traditional Christian rituals for their own memorials. Times have changed, we live in a different era, and funeral rituals should follow accordingly.

Fast forward to present day; it’s the 21st century, the year 2017. Our world is completely different: Social media, productivity, the need for social validation, everything has to be beautiful and our lifestyles are incredibly fast-paced.

When we post pictures on social media we carefully select them, we only tag ourselves in interesting places and events. Our heavy use of social media to communicate in general is fine-tuned to the way we want others to see and perceive us. Death and dying will never meet those values. Mourning and emotions related to death tend to portray the grieving in a weak way that contradicts most of our social interactions.

People are weary of current practices, rites have lost their significance and no longer comfort a significant portion of the bereaved. As a result, many individuals do not experience the many stages of the grieving process, which can significantly impact both the well-being of people and the community as a whole.

We think there is a design problem

Funeral rituals will always be a necessary rite of passage to heal from grief.

What if, rather than helping us save time or picture our lives through rose-tinted glasses, technology could help us take the time to experience the different stages of mourning and restore meaning to the rituals surrounding death?

We’ve put a lot of thought into the issue and are confident that technology can be a big part of the solution.

After observing trends in North American and European funeral markets for fifteen years, it is evident that significant changes have been taking place regarding people’s beliefs and the mourning process. Furthermore, it is obvious that rituals have mostly lost their significance.

The funeral business is big and moves slowly. Funerals have long been associated with church and religion, and this has to change. Populations are looking for alternatives, but are faced with few options. Of course, there are many innovations — 3D-printed urns, bio-compostable caskets, and personalized cremation caskets, to name just a few — but in my opinion, these innovations are just gimmicks and do not reflect the broad changes we should be seeing.

At Fragment Experience, we’re convinced that although these changes are exciting, they do not reflect what the families of the deceased want.

Memorials should be connected to the way we communicate, and they need to be significant. Rituals need to return to their original purpose: Providing comfort to the bereaved. To do so, they need to be re-designed. The core need is the same, but there is a need to refresh the “layout”.

Startup in the death industry

There are many new startups in the funeral-death industry, and the number will continue to grow. As with all enterprises, most will fail, and some will probably altogether change the way we deal with death and mourning forever. Many are already finding success, see for example this article from The New York Times published at the end of 2016:

Startups for the end of life

There is a lot of movement in the industry, and it is clear that many very talented resources are working to find alternatives. The easy way is to offer an updated and cheaper version of the already-existing services, and use the internet to connect to customers. The path less traveled is to find a way to use our social and communication behaviours to improve (not reinvent) current rituals and create compelling experiences. Yes, experiences.

Even in death, the user experience will be used to reach the deeper and more human aspect of events like memorials.

Changing or improving the way we experience and cope with grief is a tough, but important challenge. We have been stuck on repeat for decades, and I believe, there is something wrong. We are not sure what we want, but we rarely leave a memorial understanding what we have experienced and why.

 

Universal needs

Humans, whether they believe in God or not, need some kind of funeral ritual and need to feel connected to their culture and values. Not having a ceremony isn’t an option, nor are meaningless traditions. Without meaningful ceremonies, grief is pushed further down the road, and people are left with open wounds.

 

We are actively working on improving (I don’t like to use the word “changing”) something that is not as sexy as photo sharing or fashion blogging; we’re working on improving the design of death and mourning.

Fragment offers a renewed and meaningful funeral experience through relevant technology.

David Beaulieu