Just in time for the Halloween Holiday, comes scary innovation news from Singapore and the U.S. National Funeral Directors Association – an open innovation competition called Design for Death.
Jae Rhim Lee wearing the Mushroom Death Suit
Even in industries with processes that would appear to be at total odds with change of any sort, there is a push to move outside the comfort zone and imagine possibilities for the future (including the afterlife). Burial practices are for the most part dictated by religious ritual. They would have to win in the competition for process least likely to change and least likely to attract those outside the profession to participate in an innovation competition, however open. And it’s not as if there is a concern about the market for services drying up. As the old saying goes – “there are only two certainties in life – death and taxes” (Ben Franklin). But, the industry is in its mature phase – the critical inflection point at which transformation occurs from within or without or both. Looked at this way, an open innovation competition for Design for Death might even be entirely predictable.
First and foremost in shifting the framework for thinking about death is a language change. While it may seem exasperating (even I sighed when I read the new term of art), the funeral industry is rebranding itself as the deathcare industry. (Microsoft Word highlights this term with a red underscore because it is not standard English…yet.) Deathcare shifts the focus from a narrow one of how we dispose of bodies (funerals and burials) to a more expansive one of how we acknowledge death and incorporate its presence in life.
Design for Death is the first in a series of challenges that are co-sponsored by the Lien Foundation, a Singapore-based philanthropy whose mission is to stimulate and spark high-impact idea exchange, high-intensity collaboration, and high-end value creation by leveraging the people, private and public sectors around three issues: eldercare, water and sanitation, and early education; and ACM, a philanthropy established by the founder of a Singapore-based casket company to uplift the deathcare profession. The next competitions focus on two of death’s many prequels – hospice care and community arts engagement in hospitals.
What is particularly interesting about the winning submissions to the competition is that:
- All of the idea submitters are young – the oldest is 37 and the youngest is 24.
- They do not work in the deathcare industry.
- Some of them are not even designers.
- None of them come even close to what you would call “experts.”
As the National Funeral Directors Association’s Executive Director, Christine Pepper notes,
The many entries we received from designers around the world show that innovation in deathcare doesn’t have to come from funeral directors. Ideas for how families honor and remember their loved ones can come from anyone and anywhere. The ideas and innovations presented by the designers who participated in this contest bring fresh perspectives to our profession and challenge funeral directors to think about the services and products they offer to families in new ways.
The winning ideas (and even some that did not win) are arresting, poetic, thoughtful and novel. I encourage you to visit the website to see all the entries, but note two that I really liked here:
- “I wish to be rain” which transfers cremated ashes to the troposphere via a balloon that seeds clouds which ultimately release precipitation.
- “Mushroom death suit” which uses the properties of mushrooms to decompose the body and partially remediate toxins that are released during decomposition.
And, lest you think that there is no way to measure the impact of such innovation on how society handles death, the Lien Foundation partnered with the Economist Intelligence Unit to conduct research and create a Quality of Death index that ranks 40 countries on provision of end-of-life care. The UK ranks #1 and the US is #9 tied with Canada. You can visit this site to begin your death-venture (I kid you not). For most of us, this is the ultimate haunted house.