How Will YOUR Funeral Look Like?

The speaker of this month’s Creative Mornings Prague session was Jiří Hanek of Parteo. They try to disrupt the funeral communication design. To set the tone, the session was held in the ceremony hall at the Prague’s prestigious Olšany cemetery.

Creative Mornings Prague in Olšany cemetery ceremony hall

I have been poking around death and the customs surrounding it for quite a while now. My master thesis was about thanatosensitive information management. I read about it and I’ve been to death talks and conferences both as an attendee and a speaker all over the world.

For the past ten years, the opening lines in sessions like these sound like “death is something we don’t speak about” or “death has been moved to hospitals” or “speaking about death is a taboo”. While this session was no different, Jiří captured my attention by putting it in a very real perspective. He said that in this country, every day dies around 280 people and each of them has about 2 to 3 bereaved who take part in the funeral arrangements. That totals about 1000 people every day.

These people hurt and on top of that they have to deal with the stressful situation at hand. Many of them were caught off-guard, others knew it was coming. Both scenarios have one thing in common. Unless the deceased left them with instruction, they are on their own. Often pressured by the funeral agencies that are supposed to be “funeral subject-matter experts”.

A Czech funeral by the book

In the Czech Republic, when a person dies, we are expected to hold a funeral within a week. The funerals usually happen in ceremony halls located directly at the cemeteries (occasionally they happen in churches). These rooms tend to be full of dark marble and they are depressing. A traditional course of action looks something like this (for context I’m including the before and after):

  1. After a person dies, someone comes to pick up the body and gives you a bunch of flyers with funeral agency recommendations (usually has some sort of profit from it)
  2. The bereaved goes to a funeral agency to plan for it (to choose a coffin, invitations, flowers, etc.)
  3. The funeral takes place
  4. It is customary to hold a lunch gathering immediately following the funeral (I think there is a specific menu too, I just can’t remember what it is…)
  5. Either the burial happens right away (if burried in a coffin), or once the deceased is cremated (and the bereaved picked up their urn)

The biggest innovation that I saw in this field is that it became quite common to skip any kind of ceremony all together. Mostly this happens for one of the two reasons — full-fledged funerals are expensive, people don’t like funerals the way we know them today.

So what if you want to do it differently?

When my dad died, I was 21 and although my sister is 11 years older, we knew (quite understandably) nothing about funerals. Someone told us we had to go to a funeral agency. We chose his favorite clothes (including a pricy leather jacket he wore the morning the day he passed) and a few songs he liked (and one we did). The next day we went to the agency.

We went three — my sister, myself and dad’s girlfriend at the time. The lady who attended us, smoked one cigarette after another. She presented us with a catalogue of obituaries and another one of flowers. My sister and I had a good laugh about both of the catalogues. They were horendous (and I’m sure they haven’t changed at all since then). We wanted to honor our dad in a way we thought he would enjoy and we wouldn’t feel embarrassed for.

Back then, I was a design student and I said I’d do the obituary myself. My sister and I also decided to pick up a flower bouquete on our own. My dad’s girlfriend picked a few things from the catalogue. She thought we were crazy to take on more things to do… I think she just wanted to get over with it and that was the easiest way.

The traditional condolences take place in a form of a long line where everybody comes to shake your hand. Our dad had basically three families. There was no chance for us to know who the people attending the funeral were. We didn’t want this. Instead we asked for the condolence book.

We also chose to skip the traditional lunch, and rather spend the time with our family. Instead, we threw a party in the evening. We asked people to join us for a beer at a pub where our dad was a regular. (We even tried to book dad’s favorite rock’n’roll band...)

Our choices weren’t extreme, but they were still pretty uncommon. On one hand, I remember people complimenting us. They said things like they have never seen such a beautiful and fitting obituary (it was very simple and we used a quote from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road) and that the party was great. On the other hand, I also remember people expressing their distaste with the fact that we decided to skip the condolence line, or the traditional lunch. I’d listen patiently and then I’d tell them that it’s their problem if they don’t like it.

The art of saying goodbye

Parteo takes an entirely different approach to what we could call the “conventional funeral communication design”. They advocate that it should reflect the personality of the deceased and their families. They offer several templates for the most common funeral stationary (obituaries, condolence books, etc.), but are open to creating custom designs upon request.

Jiří says that they want to help evolve the funeral culture. He admits that using their services might be a bit more costly compared to the traditional offerings of funeral agencies. But he makes a good point as to why the investement into the last goodbye is worth it. He says that it’s easier to grieve in a pleasant environment, surrounded by beautiful objects, than it is when we feel uncomfortable and are surrounded by ugliness. Parteo also ventures into things like memorial books or remembrance objects (for example a special edition of remembrance wine). These can take part in our grieving, but they can also help us to remember later on.

Jiří emphasized that most people aren’t aware that the preconceived notions about dying, funerals and bereavement are just that — notions. They aren’t mandatory. We are free to take a stab at it and do it the way we’d like.

The topic of death and dying spans to so many other areas… From paliative care to digital information management. Even in our local territory, we can already find a pretty decent list of services and initiatives that try to break the conventional.

To name a few:

  • Les Vzpomínek — a burial forrest where you can hold ceremonies in a form of a pique-nique if you want to
  • Ke Kořenům — an initiative that promotes burials at the roots of trees and other plants and helps to create meaningful funeral rituals
  • Moje Smrt — a website powered by Cesta Domů (see below) that allows you to leave structured funeral instructions to your family
  • Cesta Domů — an organization helping people to die at home, as well as, a educative center and a source of information about anything death and dying related

I’m sure there are many more…

I’m happy for every single initiative that pushes the boundaries of the current status quo in death and dying. I believe that we all should have the opportunity to die and to grieve well. (I realize that the definition of well depends on circumstances…) Although there are things that are out of our control, we should at least give a thought to the things that are.

Now, let me return to my initial question… Have you ever thought of how you’d like your funeral to look like? Have you ever thought of how you can help your bereaved to cope?

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