Every quarter, the Idea Development group at Fahrenheit 212 holds an internal discussion around a single subject. The topics are wide and varied, from diving into the current and future trends in sleep, to exploring the innovative culture of Japan. This past quarter we decided to go a bit further afield and investigate what’s happening in the space of end-of-life.
I don’t think I’m ever going to die. It’s not that I’m unaware intellectually that it’ll happen someday, but it’s just that I can never picture it happening to myself – other people are in the wrong place at the wrong time, other people are involved in random freak occurrences. But people forget to look both ways before crossing the street, hammers fall from rooftop worksites, weather patterns converge on towns and cities. It happens every day. What will my moment be?
We tend to be opposed to thinking about our death on a visceral level, and it makes sense – setting aside the spiritual bits, no one wants to dive into the morbid exercise of imagining the moment of their passing and what the world will be like when they’re gone. As a result, we tend to think of death as a singular event: one moment, you’re here; the next, gone. However, no matter how sudden the event itself may actually be, the process of dying starts far earlier: from deciding what we want to pass on to our loved ones to contemplating what our legacy will be, death isn’t a singular event unto itself but rather a series of decisions made long before the inevitable moment.
The end-of-life basics in the Western world – life insurance policies, advance directives, the last will and testament, open or closed casket, burial or cremation – are discrete waypoints that that focus on the event of your passing. However, they tell nothing of the process and the thinking that one must go through to arrive at those pieces of paper. And so I wanted to know: what is the experience of confronting your own mortality? What are the decisions that you must make along the way? What are the choices, procedures, and people that you must face? And what are the emerging products, services, and experiences of today that could serve to guide me? I set out to find answers to these questions. Along the way, I discovered how “digital” estates are starting to be managed, that the making of a last will and testament is swiftly being made into an app, and a couple interesting – some might argue “creepy” – ways in which both the deceased and their survivors send messages across the divide.
The last will and testament is a standby that we’re all familiar with, but in a time of digital personage, we’ve been forced to confront a wider range of “assets,” as it were. Services like Cake ask you to consider, among other things, what will become of your social presence and how to set up a designated contact that will be given access to your digital life should the worst occur. Just as banks work with the survivors of the deceased to manage their account, social media companies have had to begin doing the same. For instance, Facebook allows you to specify a “Legacy Contact” to administer your account after your passing, while some service providers like Google provide a digital deadman’s switch which will notify pre-specified “Trusted Contacts” should your account lay dormant for a specified amount of time.
Just because more of our assets are becoming digital isn’t to say that you shouldn’t still have a will, and services that facilitate this and related documents are beginning to emerge. The aforementioned Cake provides links and information for those seeking to start the process, while a service called Willing – whose goal, according to co-founder Eliam Medina, is to make “end of life planning easier, more affordable, and approachable” – will generate your last will and testament based on a simple questionnaire. With an easy and straightforward interface, Willing takes you through several screens where it asks you about your preferences related to your burial, memorial service, individuals to whom you wish to leave your property, and who you’d like to designate as executor of your will. In 10 minutes, I had a fully legal and executable will, albeit a very basic one; more involved measures such as end-of-life directives or granting power of attorney to someone require a paid upgrade.
While a final will and testament is meant to be a last word, sending messages to loved ones after the fact is also an area that’s being explored in both Western and Eastern cultures.
In Otsuchi, a town in northeastern Japan, following the death of a cousin, 70-year old Itaru Sasaki set up a space in his backyard overlooking the Pacific Ocean that would afford him a way to cope. Consisting of an empty phone booth – complete with a phone connected to nothing – it allowed Itaru the space in which to communicate with his cousin over the waves of the wind, hence its name: Kaze no Denwa (The Wind Phone). After the devastation of the 2011 tsunami, others heard about his phone booth and began to make the trek to Otsuchi in order to similarly communicate with relatives that had been lost in the disaster. The Kaze no Denwa was the subject of an NHK documentary in early 2016, the footage of which was recently featured in a full episode of This American Life.
While the Kaze no Denwa gives survivors an avenue to communicate with those that have passed, SafeBeyond is attempting to do something similar in reverse. The service allows its users to save messages and upload messages to SafeBeyond’s servers, which can then be sent to their loved ones in a variety of ways, whether it be during special occasions (such as weddings), when they are in a specific geographic location, or on predetermined dates. In addition, the service can manage a user’s digital estate, storing things like social media accounts, email addresses, passwords, and digital media files to be passed on after one’s death.
Having gone through the process of setting up Google and Facebook’s legacy contacts, as well as the questionnaires for Cake, Willing, and other services, I was struck by a few things:
Your circle is smaller than you might think.
We all likely speak and interact with our co-workers and friends on a regular basis, but when questions such as “who will receive your property?” or “to whom should all of your emails and passwords be given?” arise, you might find that the circle of people that you truly trust gets very small, very fast.
Services like online will-builders expect consumers to have an answer at the ready for a question they might never have considered. Instead of asking “who” when it comes to these types of questions, might it actually be more beneficial for these services to ask “why”?
Nothing is too trivial.
Each and every response to a questionnaire or form requires thought and consideration. For instance, when setting up a “Trusted Contact” for my Google account, I was given the option of writing a personal note or simply having an automated message. The easy way out would be to opt for the automated message, but I thought about the recipient and the message that they might someday be on the business end of: would I want it to be dry tech boilerplate, or a true message from me to them? And if the latter, what should it say? Should it be reassuring and comforting; factual and to the point; something in between? When a message has the potential of carrying so much weight, you scrutinize every single character.
While we all are going to know our loved ones best, this can nonetheless be a very difficult topic for people to approach. How can companies that offer these services be sure they’re striking an appropriate balance between factual and emotional tones?
Communication is a requirement.
We live in a world where increasingly the most common form of communication is an instant message, and where inference or “saying something without saying something” is how many tend to prefer to speak with one another. But that just doesn’t work here: conversations need to be had, wishes need to be made known, and hard and explicit choices need to be made and codified. Technology can help, but in the end it’s important to remember that we’re dealing with a very human issue. And while services like SafeBeyond afford the opportunity to send selective missives, I’d argue there’s no substitute for having these conversations while one is still around; in the end, live is always better than Memorex.
Technology has given us the fantastic ability to communicate with a large social circle—the new frontier might very well be how technology can also begin to help in facilitating some of these more sensitive and intimate conversations.
I’ll be honest in saying that this exercise brought me no closer to feeling at ease with the fact that one day I will cease to exist. I wish I could say that the experience of investigating all of these services has given me more peace of mind, and in some ways it has, but the moment where my life will end is still as incomprehensible to me as it was before; the entire experience was frightening, emotional, and fraught with many decisions that I’d rather not have to confront. However, whereas in the past one was forced into having these difficult discussions over the kitchen table or in the confines of an estate lawyer’s office, newer services and ideas – whether digital or in-person – allow for a different space in which to formulate plans, learn about one’s options, and find ways to talk with our loved ones about the process of eventually leaving them.