NYC OpenIDEO Chapter: End-of-Life Storytelling Event- May 18, 2016

It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens.  - Woody Allen

Spoken like a true New Yorker, Woody Allen has touched upon a common theme when it comes to talking about death - we don’t like to do it. On May 18th at the NYU Greenhouse Spaces the NYC OpenIDEO chapter invited 20 chapter members to talk about death. Our Chapter organized a ‘storytelling’ event around the “End-of-Life” openIDEO challenge where we held in-depth discussions on all aspects of death.  In order to guide our discussion we looked to two local NYC organizations that are doing work in the field of Death:

First we invited, the Death Lab of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation to give an introductory talk on the challenges surrounding death in New York City. Karla Rothstein, Director of the Death Lab,  highlighted the logistical considerations to consider with death, such as space for burials in a crowded city and environmental considerations with cremations,  how can we balance these logistical concerns with emotional and behavioural aspects of losing a loved one. For example, how do we decide if the emotional desire to have a burial in New York city outweighs the environmental and economic costs associated?

We broke out into smaller groups of 4-5 to engage in more intimate discussion. We chose to use the model of the “Death Café as an inspiration to structure the storytelling event. The idea of a Death Café comes from the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz . Today, Death Cafés are held in over 29 countries; they invite participants to have free-flowing conversation around the topic of death.  

During our break out conversations, we urged members to utilize  human-centered design theorems such as  empathy and to be broad in their discussions to gain insight and inspiration. In instances where it might be too difficult to talk about death we urged the use of analogous examples - perhaps the loss of a childhood toy, or an immigration visa, could be an analogous experience of grief. We also provided question prompts to all groups as to spark conversation.  

Discussions resulted in great insights. Three big themes throughout:

The physical spaces ‘death’ inhabits: The issue of space and ‘memorials’ was discussed at length in several groups: without memorializing and mourning a death, one cannot move forward and get past it. One group talked about visiting places linked to death such as cemeteries, war museums, and memorials. We discussed how we felt and the impact it caused to each person. We also talked about how people who live around these places have to learn to deal with it every day.

Cultural differences related to death: One conversation led to a comparison of rituals in India to those in the US. A member described personal experience in India where there was often no grave or “place to visit” (because of cremation practices).This led us to a discussion about cultural differences as well as personal preferences in burial and cremation.

When does ‘end-of-life’ start? This question was posed in light of the Death Lab’s presentation which focused on the “post-death” experience. How do we determine when our “end” begins? Is it a certain age or is it when the doctor says that  you are in terminal state? When you have to go to be placed in someone else’s care (such as a nursing home)? This also led to issues of conversations in families and how often and early conversations arise in most households.  

This meetup brought about lots of interesting elements, all closely related to death. In turn, facing people directly to a subject that is often unspoken of publicly, created an instant bond amongst individuals allowing them to exchange some poignant back and forth. We felt this meetup was extremely successful in the way that it was extremely relatable and very personal. Lots of inspiration emerged, and our members have expressed enthusiastic interest in the follow-up ideation meetup.

Check out these 2 entries on OpenIDEO!