Designing for Death: The Preparation and Mourning Process

Exploring how people prepare for their own death / the death of a loved one, and how that preparation may impact the mourning process.

February 9: The “Stages” of Grief

The 5 Stages of Grief, introduced by Swiss psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, is the most accepted theory of grief by the general public, though it cannot be universally applied to all kinds of grief. Kübler-Ross clarified misconceptions about her theory and specified how it can be applied in her 2005 book On Grief and Grieving. I decided this would be good place to start to understand the facets of the grieving process.

When Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed the 5 stages of grief, she also unintentionally created the misconception that grieving is a predictable process through a series of delineated stages, eventually landing on “acceptance”, at which time the grieving process is complete.

These stages are really more of five common experiences, an attempt to normalize a time where the griever feels deeply not-normal. These stages are really only responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours, days or weeks, as we jump into one and out into another. We don’t enter or leave any individual stage in a linear fashion.

Dangers of the linear stage misconception:

  • the process of grief can be turned into a race
  • expectation that if a person is stuck in a stage that they should “get through it” ASAP so they can get to acceptance
  • once a person appears to arrive at “acceptance” they no longer need support

The stages are as follows:

Denial (and Isolation)

A common first reaction to learning about the illness, loss, or death of a loved one is to deny that situation could possibly be happening. It is a defense mechanism to buffer the immediate, jolting shock of the loss. This denial, of course, is not denial of the actual death (“I can’t believe he’s dead”, “This can’t be true”, etc. are things that may be said, at first, because the loss is too much for the psyche to handle). In this stage, we are in a state of shock in a way that helps us to pace our feelings of grief. Denial helps us survive our loss and unconsciously handle our feelings by only letting in what we can handle.

We begin to question how and why this loss happened. We begin to search for answers to questions like “Did this have to happen? Did it have to happen in this way? Could anything have prevented it?”. In answering these questions, we are unknowingly beginning the healing process. However as we move forward and denial faves, the feelings we were denying begin to surface.


As denial and isolation begins to subside, the pain of reality begins to come to the surface. This intense emotion is not immediately processed, of course, and may be expressed as anger — at family, friends, strangers, objects, God, doctors, even the lost loved one. Anger does not have to be logical or valid. We may feel that this situation is wholly unfair (“I did everything I could do and this still happened, how could this possibly happen to me”), and anger is a natural reaction to unfairness. Having an emotion, anger, to latch onto provides some kind of structure for grief, and having a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than having nothing. Anger affirms that you can feel, that you did love, and that you have lost.


The bargaining stage may be experienced in anticipation of a loss. We feel that we would do anything if only our loved one would be spared. This is our final attempt to control life so that it will go our way, and allow us to hold onto what is important to us. This behavior is often fueled by the reality that reprises (“miracles”), do occur — cancer does go into remission, experimental treatments do work, organ donors are found. We often believe that these reprises are in some way related to our bargaining.

In the post-loss bargaining stage, we become lost in a maze of “if only” or “what if” statements. We want our life and our loved one to be restored. Bargaining and guilt often go hand in hand, as “if only” statements are often “if only I had” statements. We may find faults in ourselves and what we think we could have done differently.


Depression is often the most commonly accepted form of grief. It represents the emptiness we feel when we are living in reality while realizing that a loved one is gona or a situation is over. We may withdraw from life and feel numb. Life feels pointless, and even getting out of bed may take more out of us than we have to give. It is almost as if we don’t care enough to care. If we care enough to move forward, we might encounter more pain — or feel that we are moving away from feeling the pain of the loss (read: the importance of the loss), so we don’t want to care about anything.

Kübler-Ross invites us to deal with our depression by acknowledging sadness and emptiness in a way that allows us to explore our loss in its entirety. The sooner we allow ourselves to truly experience depression (“normal” depression, the sadness we feel at certain times in our lives, as opposed to clinical depression).


Acceptance does not mean that we are all right or okay with what has happened to us. Many people will never be completely healed and may return to any of the previous four stages at one time or another. Rather, acceptance is realizing “this happened to me, but I will be okay and my life can go on”. As we begin to accept our loss, our good days start to outnumber our bad days. We may lift from our fog, engage with friends, work, school, community, and may make new relationships as time goes on. We understand that our loved one will never be replaced, but we can honor their memory as we move and evolve into our new reality.

To do grief “well” depends on the individual- acknowledging the truth of pain and loss

Things to remember:

  • there is no set “end”, each individual’s grief has its own lifespan
  • grief can ebb and flow, and individual may get tired of grief and return later on
  • there is no objectively “wrong” way to grieve, though some ways may allow us to more easily regain control of our lives and others may prolong feelings of grief and the pain that accompanies them
Kübler-Ross, 11–25

February 9: Religion and Grief

Religion and spirituality plays a large role in the way that we prepare for and live through important milestones. Below is an overview of how religious affiliation can affect the death and grieving process.

Religious Affiliation

  • specific rituals and rites can draw people together and encourage them to share their grief
  • attending services can link griever to well-defined community primed to offer help (kind words, listening, meals, etc.)
  • lends larger meaning to one’s life and death
  • believing loved one helps guide you in this world can help you continue to feel connected to them


  • for many, the rituals, artifacts, and meaning once found in religion no longer provide emotional solace
  • 25.1% of people in UK (2011 census) report they have no religion, rising trend of agnosticism, atheism, non-affiliation
  • design can help create meaning
  • adolescents: still connected via technology when isolated (juxtaposition between isolation and connectedness), and may not need more opportunities to connect
“Easing Grief Through Religion and Spirituality.”

February 6: Initial Thoughts on End-of-Life Conversations

End-of-life preparation and conversation is an important element of the death process that can inform the grieving and recovery. Communicating your wishes to your loved ones can help them more easily make the important, confusing, and difficult decisions that face them after your death.

Avoid Because:

  • Don’t want people to think that they are waiting for them to die
  • Comforting to think that the doctor is in charge (“it’s outside my domain”)
  • Parents don’t want to worry children
  • Feel it’s too soon (usually a last-second conversation, if at all)

How to Prepare (Self):

  • Think about care: what is too little, what is too much?
  • “I want to live as long as I am able to…”
  • “I want my death to be…”
  • Who should be consulted on decisions about whether to continue care
  • What you want to happen to your body (What is traditional, what people expect, pros/cons of all)
  • What would give you comfort
  • What does your family want
  • Particular concerns that you want to address (finances, other family members’ care, etc.)

How to bring up/facilitate (for someone else):

  • “I’m worried about what might happen if you’re ill and I have to make decisions for you. Can you help me?”
  • “I was thinking about what happened to ___, and I it made me realize…”

To Keep in Mind:

  • Remember that these are talks about what is important to you/them
  • It’s about what matters to you, not what’s the matter with you
  • Communicates “I’m not going to leave you”
  • A good death means different things to different people

February 19: Interview with Cheryl, Hospice Nurse

In researching how people prepare for their own or a loved one’s death, I felt it necessary to speak to someone who had played a role in this process many times. I contacted a neighbor who has worked in hospice for more than two decades to learn more about her experience conducting, observing, and taking part in end-of-life conversations.

Cheryl’s Background

  • Hospice nurse working in St. Louis, MO for ~20 years
  • Hospice center centers around physical, emotional and spiritual care, provides doctors, nurses, social workers, and chaplains
  • Nurse of 11 patients, sees 5–6 patients a day for up to 2 hour visits
  • Goes out to patient’s home 2x a week for a few days up to 6 months
  • Teaching family how to care for their loved one
  • As they decline, teaching how and why to treat discomfort
  • Comfort is her main objective

When is it time to enter hospice?

Information from St. Anthony’s Hospice, St. Louis MO

  • Treatments are no longer working or are causing more pain and discomfort than they seem to be worth.
  • The patient has serious pain or other symptoms that are proving very difficult to manage, such as continued weight loss, severe fatigue, difficulty with daily personal care, difficulty breathing or swallowing, and continuing fluid build-up in the body.
  • The patient wants to focus on the quality of his or her life instead of curing a disease.
  • Have an incurable disease with a life expectancy of six months or less, as certified by a physician.
  • Family members are beginning to feel overwhelmed emotionally or physically by providing daily care for the loved one and unsure whether they are providing the best possible care; they would benefit from support and guidance from trained professionals.

The Option of Hospice

  • This conversation is had before she starts to work with her patients
  • Brought up by a doctor, sometimes doctor makes the nurse do it but she looks down on that
  • Telling patients and families that nothing more can be done
  • Ideally the physician comes in, sits down, educates about hospice and why it’s the right choice
  • They explain that it is best to die at home, increased comfort, respect, dignity
  • Doctor will take time to answer all questions that patients and families have

The Decision to Enter Hospice

  • Sometimes months between the conversation and entering hospice, may take several emergency room visits to get patient and family to accept entering hospice
  • Calls being told they qualify for hospice “planting the seed”
  • Need to really trust their doctor
  • Feels that it is easiest when the family is on board, even if patient isn’t (they’ll go more willingly into hospice because the family can convince them)
  • It is hardest when the family isn’t on board but the patient is (they are not prepared for the amount of work, may resent the patient and view them as an inconvenience, more suffering for patient because they feel that they are putting themselves through something to make the family happy)
  • Often triggers the start of other conversations (funeral/burial decisions, life insurance, will, seeing family, etc. )
  • Long-term patients (cancer, etc.) and family she feels have had time to reflect and accept, are much more willing to enter hospice, “They get it”

Hospice Care

  • Once the decision is made, she takes it one day at a time with the family (let’s get through today, this hour even)
  • Too much planning can be detrimental because you can’t keep someone on a routine
  • When they’re awake ready to chat/sleeping/uncomfortable
  • Family needs to be flexible
  • Immediate family alters jobs, family, etc. to care for the patient physically, emotionally, spiritually
  • Usually financials are in order, with legal/financial issues a social worker may come in to get moving ASAP while they are still of competent mind
  • Worst case scenario is if they need something to be signed and they are deemed incompetent (doesn’t happen that often)
  • Finds that a lot of young(er) men want to teach wives how to take over their responsibilities in the house
  • Tries to help the family always choose comfort (it’s not worth making a terminal lung cancer patient exhaust themselves to walk to the bathroom when they could be taken), because it’s best for patient and she feels they will not feel guilty/regret after the patient dies

Issues in Hospice Care

  • Hospice can bring a family together or tear them apart, kind of amplifying whatever is already there
  • Family may feel patient is a burden
  • Acceptance of death can wax and wane, they can think they are ready and then change their mind
  • Family choosing convenience/ability over comfort
  • Parents oftentimes want to see estranged children
  • Patient doesn’t need to hear everyone’s opinion about everything, and neither does their spouse
  • Families can put restrictions on how open they are
  • Sometimes patients do not know they’re in hospice
  • Families will tell her not to talk about hospice or death
  • Feels that men tend to be very closed to her, not want to talk about emotions
  • Lots of denial from patient and family during this time (grieving has already begun)
  • Patient is scared of death, most often what it is going to feel like. Assures them that she will keep them comfortable

Emotional Support

  • Mostly listens and watches, intervenes when she feels necessary
  • Asks lots of open ended questions (How are you feeling? Do you have anything you want to talk about today? What are your hopes? What are your fears?)
  • Lots of resources, especially when there is a small child involved (patient or family) and it needs to be explained in a certain way
  • She looks out for the patient and their families, asking spouse, parents, children how they are doing
  • Watches for drug and alcohol abuse
  • Works with a social worker and a chaplain who take on more emotional roles than she does (she refers the family to them when they are struggling)
  • If they are Christian she brings in the chaplain, says sometimes they are really fine dying, “readily coming into hospice” because they have the belief of heaven
  • Social worker can give them books to reflect in, ask chosen questions from a sheet while recording video which is then made into a memorial item)
  • Finds that patients really like to be able reflect on their life, talk about what they want
  • Very high burnout rate in hospice, sometimes she gets really tired of the death and dying and crying
  • Tries to designate a lot of emotional work to chaplain or social worker

After Death

  • Support group at hospital, but mostly they grieve with their families and friends
  • Family often feels guilty for making certain decisions during hospice because they are not of clear mind and want to dissect things
  • She always wants them to feel “confident” or sure in the decisions they made during hospice, the worst thing she feels is if they feel guilty

February 24: Interview with Sarah, Social Worker

When I asked Cheryl, a hospice nurse, about how she deals with specific conflicts that arise with her patients and their families, she often responded that she would refer that family to a hospice center social worker. I contacted Sarah, a social worker Cheryl works closely with, to get more insight into these conflicts and how they are resolved.


  • Social worker at hospice center in St. Louis, MO
  • Is called in any time by family or nurse anytime there is a legal or social issue while patients and families are entering and in hospice care
  • She primarily deals with power of attorney

Conflicts She Oversees

  • She mostly oversees conflicts in how families spend money, internal conflicts usually can be or are preferred to be handled within the family
  • If there isn’t a power of attorney for medical and finances, her job becomes a lot harder
  • Her ideal situation is that the patient and family has many of their financial, medical, and legal affairs in order before they enter hospice care, so she has a framework to work within
  • If there isn’t a power of attorney, things “get tricky”
  • If patients haven’t made out a will, if a family member hasn’t been put onto a bank account, people(referring to children of patients) get greedy and sidetracked from the issue at hand
  • Plays a large logistical/legal role in funeral planning specifically relating to patients wanting to donate bodies (has noticed an increase in those wanting to do so)
  • Patients often want to convert, be baptized, or be anointed before their death

Resolving Conflict

  • If there are legitimate legal issues, she encourages them to go to/refers them to their lawyer or legal aid
  • Most of the time, families will end up honoring what patient wants (referring to entering hospice, managing levels of comfort/pain)
  • One of her roles is to talk about respite care to give caregivers a break, to avoid burnout
  • If she feels it is necessary, she refers family to a bereavement counselor, part of the hospice center’s bereavement program
  • Life Review Program: if they have time and energy, patients (Notes that these are often younger patients that need help wrapping up their life, as older patients/those have been sick longer have begun to do this on their own. Also notes that women are often much more open to this option than men) can choose questions from a list and videotape their answers, to help with reflection and reminiscing, and cataloguing of memories — families often watch tape together at memorial service or afterwards.
  • When a patient requests any spiritual or religious guidance or service (being baptized, anointed, wants to convert, read scripture, talk about life after death, wants spiritual guidance, etc.) she calls in the chaplain

Feb 26: Charrette/Deliverable 1, Map of End-of-Life Conversations

Based on my research, I created this poster mapping out different types of end-of-life conversations, and at what point they seem to, or are planned to, occur.


This map is from the point of view of the individual that will eventually die, though family members may be the ones to initiate the first conversation. It is a hard balance to strike between the “right” way to have these conversations and the “real” way these conversations happen, because nearly all factors that impact these conversations are circumstantial.

In creating this map I had to be very mindful that this timeline may only be applicable to the American middle class way of life (especially with regards to the medical and legal timeline represented, but also in the way that we are expected to relate to our family, spirituality, and the way we may prioritize or personal wishes over what may be “traditional”.


Social: Conversations we have with our family and friends about what we want them to know, what we need from them, and gaining closure.

Personal: Considerations we contemplate personally that inform the conversations we have with others

Logistical: Determining practical aspects of communication including when, where, and with whom conversations will happen.

Legal and Medical: Though separate, these categories are put together because they impact each other and may be handled or facilitated by professionals that work together to solve issues such as a lawyers, social workers, and doctors.

Spiritual: Conversations had and actions taken with a member of the clergy

Funerary: Preparations made for a funeral, shiva, or memorial service. This category may be subject to the most change from case to case based on tradition, willingness to address mortality, and timeliness of death.

Time Periods

Preparation: Possibly the longest period of time, preparation begins when you become aware of your own mortality and become an active participant in preparing for your eventual departure. Preparation may begin at a different time for every person, or may not begin at all.

Anticipation: Anticipation begins when death is a tangible, approaching event. This may be when someone becomes immobile and unable to care for themselves, when they are diagnosed with a terminal illness, when they are told there is no more viable treatment, or enter hospice. Anticipation may mean a different thing to the individual than to their family.

Conclusion: Conclusion is (hopefully) the shortest period of time. It begins when the dying process begins, or may begin at any time, and ends when death is complete. It is usually when we start to say our “goodbyes”.

March 5, 2017: Product Landscape —Facilitating Conversations

There are many existing products that aim to aid all aspects of the preparation process including facilitating conversations, reflecting on life, planning a funeral, and preparing for important medical decisions.

My Wonderful Life

My Wonderful Life focuses on the ritual of death in addition to issues like distribution of property. On the site you can outline the kind of funeral you want, how you want to be memorialized/remembered. You can also appoint an “angel” who can help make your wishes a reality after passing.

Timecard by Microsoft

Timecard is a device concept that uses details left behind by a loved one (photos, journals, documents) to reassemble a chronology of their life. Information is inputted manually (photos are scanned, dates are added), and compiled into a digital timeline that can be scrolled through and tapped for more information. This is intended to support storytelling about the subject.

Hello (formerly My Gift of Grace)

Hello (renamed from My Gift of Grace in March 2017) is a conversation game that uses cards with question-prompts to promote conversations about death, dying, personal wishes, and happiness. In My Gift of Grace, questions were answered verbally and discussed as a group. In Hello, answers are jotted down into a session book that can be reflected and amended later.

Go Wish

Go Wish is another card game that allows you to sort wishes like “To be kept clean”, “To be free from anxiety”, and “To meet with clergy or a chaplain” by “Very Important”, Somewhat Important” and “Not Important”. Users can complete the activity with a family member to have a conversation as the cards are sorted, or can print out a completed chart and use it to facilitate a conversation.

The Conversation Project

The Conversation Project Starter Kit is a guidebook to use throughout preparation, conversation itself, and followup for a conversation about preparing for death. It includes prompts like “What do you need to think about or do before you feel ready to have the conversation?”, and gives tips like “you can start out by writing a letter” throughout each section. It establishes where you fall on scales regarding transparency of information, personal autonomy, acceptable length of medical care. The guidebook also helps you plan the next in a series of conversations including when, where, who with, and what you want to cover in your next conversation.

Caring Conversations

The Caring Conversations Workbook guides someone, their family, and friends through the process of advance care planning including topics like organ donation, DNR orders, serious illness, and power of attorney. The workbook approaches the process of conversation through four steps — Reflect, Talk, Appoint, and Act, and places an emphasis on identifying and appointing an “agent” to aid you through the process and act on your behalf.

March 13, 2017: The Future of Looking Back — Stuff and Sentimentality

Nearly everyone has object from their past that they choose to keep. What are the attributes of these items that contribute to their sentimentality? How do physical and digital items differ? How does sentimentality change from owner to owner? What can we learn from items that we inherit from others? Richard Banks explores these questions in The Future of Looking Back, Part I: Stuff and Sentimentality.

Why do we keep things?

We keep things generally for the “5 R’s”

  • Reminiscing: looking back on the past for primarily emotional and sentimental reasons
  • Reflecting: A process through which people can gain new insights or perspectives on the past
  • Recollecting: remembering past details of an event, often for practical purposes
  • Retrieving: finding facts, information or objects from the last
  • Remembering: form of prospective memory through which people plan future activities

We keep things for 3 recipients:

  • ourselves
  • a “known other” (family member, friend, etc.)
  • an “unknown other”, a form of legacy where the recipient is not known

For ourselves:

  • an investment for future reminiscing, implying a distrust/need for support of our own memories
  • highlighting aspects of our lives most important to us, not necessarily our entire canon
  • we keep things on shelves/on display in our homes to remind us of past

For an audience:

  • record dates, names on backs of our own photos, knowing someone who views them years from now will need to know information
  • keep things on display to invite comments from others, using space to control opportunities for storytelling
  • we often display items we know we should, like photos of family members

For legacy:

  • the way we view people may change when looking through things we inherit after their death (what they cared most about, times of their life they felt were important, information from before we knew them)

Why do we hang onto things given to us?

  • people sort through things at multiple points in their life, things that survive all decision points and are passed on have some kind of significance
  • items may transform to be become more about the time they were created rather than the original sentimental reason, a different level of meaning for the keeper (photos become less about the people in them and more about the time they were taken and how things are different than how we live today)
  • items that have sentiment have to be attached to a universally interesting/compelling story (in general or just for family, not just for the original owner) in order to be kept as an heirloom
  • the objects that people want to give to others aren’t always what the others want to receive, ex. a baby book may be very significant for parents, but not for the child it features
  • heirlooms may be useful (an antique rolling pin), and somehow space isn’t wasted on them because they are useful and emotive — and a new layer of meaning is attached onto them with each owner because the object is being used
  • a new layer of meaning may be a new story, some kind of destructive activity like tear and tear, etc.

Attributes of physical things

  • there can be only one or each object, and we are limited in the number we can have (and we can alter them so they are uniquely ours)
  • can play on all senses through material attributes (an MP3 v. a vinyl record)
  • takes up real space, we must dedicate space to display it, store it — it also is part of the landscape of the place that it lives
  • change over time, and will eventually degrade to a point where they cannot be renewed (oxidation, develop a patina, chip, scratch, flake, rot)
  • can eventually reach a point where they are valued again (ex: kitsch items can have a moment, 80’s nostalgia of the 60’s, etc.)
  • they are easy to access- we can pick up an object and handle it, v. digital where the file may not be able to be opened, may be encrypted, etc.
  • related objects of different media are often stored together (Trip to Holland: photos, boarding passes, pair of souvenir clogs may all be stored on one shelf, vs. boarding passes on phone, photos on computer, clogs on shelf if items are stored digitally) which may affect the way we remember experiences

Attributes of digital things

  • only a small part is visible at any time, tough to build a mental model of where it lives- we can also store digital objects in many different ways (randomly, chronologically, by year, by event) all at once
  • one virtual item looks pretty much the same as any other, and we have to do work to make them stand out — the way they are housed usually tells us little about their content, the possibility to make them less sacred (a MP3 of Grandpa’s voice as recorded from the cockpit of an aircraft he was flying in WW2 might end up right next to an MP3 of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”)
  • digital items are fixed, and are aged by what changes around them (they can look outdated, but they themselves do not degrade)
  • digital items stay put in the form that they are created, and can have properties embedded in them as metadata
  • seem to have an uncertain fate if we continue to move forward on current technological trajectory, as software is highly malleable (Will easily accessible technology allow me to extract photos from this CD in 20 years? What will happen to my photos in the cloud?)
  • we can make as many duplicates of digital items as we want, and share them easily
  • they have properties and behaviors that bring them alive on screen
  • opportunity to come across things serendipitously, by viewing photos in a random order, for example
  • it may be harder to reflect on digital objects because we generally spend less time handling and manipulating them
  • files may require more upkeep than digital items, because of the rapid increase of efficiency (“This hard drive from 10 years ago is taking up a lot of space, I should transfer my files to a memory card that takes up 5% of the space”)

Where the physical and digital overlap

  • using older technology (that is more beautiful to keep on display) to display digital content (a digital slide viewer)
  • using technology to create a more accessible record of physical objects (“Where’s George” currency tracking project, “Tales of Things” barcode project, “Bookcrossing” book sharing project), to keep track of description, date, location, owner, etc.
  • using printing/3d printing to make a digital file physical, and using scanning/3d scanning, recording to make a physical object digital

March 14: The Moms

For my CMU Senior capstone project, my teammates and I are building a memorial space to remember the young victims of gun violence in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Hazelwood. The exhibit includes a Photo Wall and a Memento Shelf to display artifacts that the victims’ families have kept to remember them. In identifying, gathering, and collecting these items, I’ve learned a lot about the items that people choose to keep to remember someone by. We talked to the Hazelwood Moms

“Is there anything you wish you had but you don’t?”
“I wish I had him.”

What kinds of items are kept?

  • items that are significant to the keeper independent of the death (deceased’s baby shoes kept by mom, gifts given to the keeper from the deceased, notes between keeper and deceased)
  • items that commemorate an event or accomplishment (photos of trip, photos of deceased (aspiring rapper) in music studio, trophy, funeral program, memorial t-shirt, tuxedo hat)
  • items that the deceased created (photos they took, music created,
  • items that take on meaning after death (everyday carry items such as shoes, clothes, photos the deceased liked of themselves)

Where are these items kept?

  • some choose to keep items out on display, especially indications of accomplishments and photos
  • others choose to keep items tucked away, especially photo albums and items of personal significance to the keeper that may be valuable or fragile

March 16: The Future of Looking Back — A Digital Life

How can the structure and phases in our life affect the content we want to keep for sentimental reasons? How can death affect the way we look back on someone’s past? These questions are explored in The Future of Looking Back, Part II: A Digital Life.

Our Digital Lifespan

  • big landmarks (marriage, birth of a child, etc.) are things we generally want to reflect on in life and are recognized by others as being a part of the way their lives are structured too


  • It is amazing to watch someone develop biologically and intellectually at a fast pace
  • We do not often see these records of ourselves during this time, often it is only when we start to record our own child, etc. when we wonder were the record of us has gone
  • In some way is a celebration of parenthood, and the novelty of the experience subsides with the second and third child (the making > the artifact itself)

Growing up

  • our sense of self and self-consciousness increases as we get older
  • visiting our own past when we are young is often embarrassing, as we are still figuring out who we are (once we’ve had time to live and are confident in who we are/the life we’ve lived, we can more easily reminisce and recollect our past in a more constructive way)


  • Large changes (moving, marriage, starting a career) push us to make decisions about the things we own, what we decide to take or leave behind, what we will archive or put on display (mostly with physical things, there is not much reward (in square footage or lbs., to cleaning out our hard drive, unless we are selling or giving a computer away)
  • The Reminiscence Bump: a form of cognitive bias that describes how middle and older adults tend to recall more from their adolescent and early adulthood (ages 10–25) than from the rest of their life
  • Rosy Retrospection: describes our tendency to see our past in a way that is more positive than it actually was
  • When we share our life with someone else (get married/start a family), the shared home is filled with objects that belong to both, associated with shared memories (What happens to the personal objects? Kept on a nightstand or boudoir? In a box in the closet? In a home office?)
  • When children grow up and leave home, parents are left with objects they left behind — which the children may see as belonging to the parents/part of the home, but the parents see them as belonging to the children
  • When children leave home, parents might find their homes so changed that they move to somewhere new or change the house (addition, changing a bedroom into an office, etc.) to be somewhere “new”

Reflecting on Life

  • Often the first conversation is “what do you want after I die?”
  • Person dying may be surprised at what people want to have and what is sentimental to people, as they are not the same as what is sentimental for the dying
  • focusing on material, practical issues, like where items will go, makes this death an easier conversation to have
  • time needs to be set aside to draw out tales and insights into a life that reflect experience and memory, but often left too late
  • little pieces of information, like time, place, person in a photo can be used to allow a family to reassemble jigsaw pieces of life

A Digital Death

This section also features information from Jed Brubaker’s work “Death on Social Media”.

  • Digital possessions, like physical ones, can be sentimental (photos) and assets (online bank account)
  • Big issue is that the volume of digital information we inherit could be enormous (I, after 8 years of having Facebook, have 6000 pictures on that site alone, far more that I think my grandparents have in their whole home after 83 years of life and 60 years of marriage)
  • Our ancestors have implicitly indicated that an item is significant through the act of keeping it, but we keep everything by default (no consequence to not going through thousands of photos, spacewise, and it takes forever and is difficult)
  • We are likely to have too many details of our lives saved that it would be nearly impossible for anyone to get a clear picture of who we were (the exceptional is mixed with the mundane, and anyone who doesn’t have their entire life to devote to sorting through my digital junk isn’t going to be able to figure out what’s actually important)
  • We need the equivalent of Google to sort out important results from mundane ones
  • However, mundane things allow us to tell the day-to-day story of our lives (tone/time/tags of status updates show what we are excited about, stressed about, and our schedules, what articles we choose to share show what we care about and our sense of humor, etc. )
  • Danger: when dealing with so much data that is created on-the-fly and is almost never gone back over and curated, the chance of coming across something decontextualized and upsetting is fairly high
  • Archiving digital information is a lot of work on the part of the owner, so much so that it might not be worth doing. We must…
  1. Back up content as we create it
  2. Connect the different places where we keep things online
  3. Move content from place to place
  4. Create and update a central place where content always lives


  • Part of the process of remembering someone is through curation and creation (choosing photos and putting together a scrapbook, for example)
  • Danger: our relationship with digital services is often fickle and fragile, we have no idea when the site will be taken down or something new may come along, so valuable information shared might be lost (better to do this physically? or have the digital be turned into a paper book that can be distributed?
  • Continued friendship: We can message the person’s profile on Facebook, one woman buried her husband with a cell phone and pays for his line, so she can text him and feel that he physically received her message
  • Allowing people to say goodbye and let go at their own pace is an important feature of digital services, because a physical artifact may have to be passed onto someone else, may take lots of effort to unpack and repack, etc.

March 23: The Future of Looking Back — New Sentimental Things

Knowing what we know now about aspects of heirlooms how can we design these aspects into digital artifacts and services to elicit the same, or an equally strong, emotional connection as one might have with a physical object?

  • We have a loosening concept of “the original”, because digital things can be recreated with no effort. This release from the anxiety of preservation may be good or bad (things stay around longer, but require less upkeep: are the less precious?)
  • Preserving digital space: recreating someone’s digital desktop to experience things as the original owner did (introduces the “mundane” like the way folders are named and categorized, the dates things were accessed etc. in a way that shows how people organize themselves in a very intimate space (I organize my desktop in a way that makes sense to me but may be confusing to someone else, but going through files on my old laptop from high school shows a very different person than who I am now)
  • Capturing things to discard them: taking photos of trophies, SWAG, etc. so that we can remember the experience without having to keep the object
  • Digital things lack the imperfection that comes from physical things, because the digital doesn’t age materially (may not give us a sense of how much time has passed/how precious a digital object is)
  • Capturing a person: Kinect/motion capture and 3d scanning may offer a way to bring someone “back to life” (creepy or endearing?)

Reminiscing on our own Digital Items

  • Viewing digital space as a living space, rather than a computer as just a box of files, so it should be experienced the way that it was saved (for example on my high school laptop, I have a folder on my desktop, not even in a hidden folder, labeled “Dorm” that is full of decorations and crafts for my freshman year dorm, showing that I was excited about moving to college and starting a new experience)
  • Going back through Pandora or Netflix to remember what you were listening to/watching at a particular time, and maybe who you were with (I recently went back through my Netflix history and remembered binge watching “Lost” during finals week freshman year with a friend that I have fallen out of touch with)
  • Personal Informatics: my mom going through her Fitbit history and remembering running the Boston Marathon, going on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, etc. and remembering the physical aspect rather than the visual aspect that photos can capture
  • What we publish on the internet is different than what we put in a diary. We are publishing for “known others” as well as “unknown others” (friends and family vs. a lurker) , rather than just writing to reflect and maybe record history for ourselves

Playing on the Senses

  • Smell: opening an old file doesn’t have the same transporting affect of opening an old book, for example (could it?)
  • Audio: background and foreground are hard to navigate. If voice is recorded in a sound booth, we lose context. If it is recorded with background noise, we lose quality.

March 25: Product Landscape: Digitally Compiling and Sharing our Data and Possessions

Data is an increasingly important aspect of our belongings that we should consider when preparing of death, as we would our material possessions. There are existing products that help document this data, deliver it to its new owner, and help them discover information in a meaningful way.

Password Box (formerly Legacy Locker)

Password Box is a site/plugin that allows you to store details and passwords for digital assets and accounts, and bequeath them to specific beneficiaries. After your death, the service sends out digital letters to these beneficiaries, that can be authored beforehand.

DeathSwitch (2006–2015) and SecretValet

After you sign up for DeathSwitch’s services, you are prompted to enter a password on a regular basis. If you don’t enter one for a long time, it automatically sends out your digital assets (via email and attachments) to beneficiaries. Presumably failed because it is an extreme solution to this distribution issue, and it doesn’t feel like you and it are really “partners” in dealing with this highly stressful/emotional issue, as it is seemingly constantly reminding you “if you don’t take action on this site, you’re essentially dead and lose rights to your digital belongings”. And it cost $20 a year.

SecretValet that is essentially the same service, but a much more human-centered approach (asks you questions about your life instead of entering a password, stresses benefits to your family, money, and security). It can also be set up by someone on behalf of a “client”, extending use from personal to something an estate manager could use.

Shoebox by

Shoebox by allows members to “scan” photos and documents with your phone and add them to a family tree. The service allows you to date, map, and tag the photos to encode important information. Adding this information grounds a family tree in reality by being able to visually represent people and events.

Photosynth by Microsoft (2008–2017)

Photosynth was a service that made dynamic collages of 2d photos that it arranges into a 3d space. This service could be used to capture an important event, like the photo of President Obama’s first inauguration, shown above, or of an intimate space such as a loved one’s office, workshop, etc. The service allowed you to “stand away” from the space, or “peer closer” at details of a space that someone occupied.

What Was There

What Was There is a service that allows crowdsourced historical photos to be tied to Google Maps, allowing a user to tour familiar streets and see how they appeared in the past. The service allows anyone to upload a photo with two tags to provide context (date and location of photo). This could be used to view a family estate that has since transferred ownership or is too far away to travel to, but would be valuable to see change within.

March 26: Charrette Brainstorming

Reflecting on Life

Over Time

A concern when asked to reflect on life in a way that will be recorded for people later on (esp. when writing a letter to be delivered later, even to ourselves a la writing a letter when graduating elementary school to be delivered when we graduate high school) is that we may write about our life at this specific point in time, rather than about who we really are, overarching issues, triumphs, etc. A long-term solution to this might be teaching people to reflect over the course of life, giving them the opportunity to collect content as well as learn how to think about this content.


Elementary School-High school: name, favorite hobbies, what you want to be when you grow up, accomplishments

College: what you are studying, what you are involved in, what you struggle with, what you are proud of

Adulthood: what you are working on, what you struggle with, what you are proud of, what you are preparing for (children, new job, moving, etc.).what children/spouse/friends struggle with and how you helped them through

Elderly: reading back over past entries and noticing trends, prompts to reflect on these trends, regrets, things you’re proud of, what you remember most about, what you wish you could forget

Short Term

It may be difficult for someone to be prompted with “reflect on your life”, even with specific things to address (family, friends, events) without training. Being prompted with a specific topic may be much easier to expand memories/wisdom/thoughts upon.

Going through storage or items displayed in a home (done by the person dying or family)in preparation for a will, moving to a nursing home, etc. and asking about stories related to a specific object, or experiences surrounding an object (I found this cast iron mechanical bank on a shelf in your living room, can you tell me more about it?) Answers can be recorded and attached to the item, to accompany the item on a journey to its new owner. This may reveal mundane or important information about the dying person.

Discovering Information

As the amount of digital belongings we acquire increases, passing those items on and having someone serendipitously come across interesting information becomes more and more difficult. Ways to facilitate this might be as simple as keeping photos in random, rather than chronological order, or it may be more curated and calculated.


Photos could be revealed to the bequeathed using location as a prompt — putting photos in context and possibly allowing them to have more of an impact on the recipient.

Ex: Grandpa Ed is my dad’s father, who immigrated from Ireland, and died before I was born. When I was exploring London, my dad sent me me a photo Grandpa Ed had taken of Picadilly Circus in 1935, a spot I had just visited. Having this Picadilly Circus connection made me feel more connected (less lonely, more willing to interact and explore by giving me something to look for) to my surroundings and my grandpa (knowing we were experiencing the same place for the first time, maybe feeling the same emotions/sense of awe, etc.). It inspired me to go back and view the square through a new set of eyes.

Conversation with my dad, June 2016


Photos, diary entries, documents, could be revealed to a recipient based on time as well. These items could be delivered to a recipient 25, 50, 75 years after they were originally created, or could be delivered based on the recipient’s age or stage of life (birthdays, weddings, etc. i.e. a diary entry written by grandpa when she turned 25 could be delivered to grandson when he is 25)

Ex: On my friend Jenny’s 16th birthday, she received a professional portrait of her grandmother, taken when she herself was 16 (one of only a few that exist). Jenny and her grandma happen to look a lot alike, which she had not realized until looking at the photo. Knowing that they were the same age and looked similar prompted Jenny to look for more photos of her grandma as a young woman, and learned more about her as a result.

Jenny (Left) and Grandma Betty (Right)

March 27: Charrette 2, Conversation Pieces

In my research, interviews and casual discussion about conversations about death, people often report that the first discussion they have about death with their parents is “Go around the house and claim what you’ll want when I die”. While this might seem morbid, physical objects are a very stable foundation to jump off from when beginning the death preparation process. Conversations aims to both facilitate this activity in a meaningful way by allowing both parties to attach history and meaning to possessions, recording the information for posterity, and strengthening their interpersonal bond as a result.

Participants (presumably an elderly parent and their adult child), each draw a card from a deck. On the front of the cards, there are prompts such as

  • a reminder of a happy time
  • a reminder of a difficult time
  • a reminder of a time we shared
  • a reminder of my childhood
  • a reminder of you
  • a reminder of a major event

Participants either split up and find the item, if it is on display or in accessible storage, or think of the item if it is not readily available. They then fill out the back of the card with information about the object, where and when the acquired it, and why they chose it for the prompt. Participants then regather — immediately, or after days or weeks (or one family gathering to another) and discuss their objects as they relate to the prompt, the history of their objects, and the future of their objects. The card can then be stored with the object to be passed down to whoever inherits it.

This activity will provide a bonding experience for participants as well as provide an opportunity to record important information about an individual’s story that can be passed down to future generations.

April 6: Charette Expansion

I have decided to expand upon my Conversation Pieces design charrette. I reanalyzed the problem space to understand the potential outcomes of the conversations fueled by possessions. In the map below I identify 3 outcomes: Telling your story, interpreting their story, and starting conversations. I then generated potential prompts for object selection and information gathering that would facilitate those outcomes.

April 10: Product Architecture

Now that I have a good idea of the theme and content of the Conversation Pieces product, I need to lay out the final product architecture.


Any two individuals with an established personal relationship and want to strengthen or enrich that relationship (expected but not required that one is either closer to end-of-life or has more life experience than the other)

Recommended Intervention:

  1. Participants gather in one location, or one gets the entire box and sends their partner their half
  2. Participants select prompts from the box
  3. Participants find or think of objects that they currently have (have kept for a reason) and fill out the cards
  4. Participants come back together and share their objects and stories
  5. Participants put cards back in their individual box and take home their own box, or if ready to trade objects there, keep card with item and give item to partner or anyone else you want to have the object

Expected Outcomes:

  • opportunity to assess items you’ve kept and consider why
  • opportunity for loved ones to rediscover objects they may be familiar with in a new light
  • opportunity share stories, personal and well-known, with loved ones
  • opportunity to discuss concrete next steps in end-of-life preparation (what objects do you want to pass down, and how will that passing down take place?)

April 13: Tagging Items for Documentation and Discovery


Attaching Story Card/Prompt Card to the Object:

  • must be able to attach to a variety of surfaces
  • must not damage the item it’s attaching to
  • must be able to sustain attachment for years, potentially
  • must be removable

**Do I want the card itself to be attached to the object? Or can there just be a tag saying that there is a card corresponding to the object


  • Record of what object is, when it was acquired, where it came from, any personal notes, why it was kept, what you want to happen to it
  • may be important to note when the item was tagged, not just date etc. of the item itself
  • Keep all cards together in original packaging that includes a sticker/other tag that indicates that this is a significant object that should be saved, if come across
  • Above works if you cannot find the object but choose it for the prompt, because all the cards stay in the same place

April 24: Prototype

Box exterior
The box contains two sets of materials
Materials include instruction booklet, discussion questions booklet, and a set of prompt cards. Blue prompts indicate that objects chosen may be intended to be passed down, and might require more discussion.
Front and back of prompt card

New in this prototype:

  • two sets of cards rather than one
  • the ability for participants to choose their own prompts (or look at objects and choose prompts for them) from a complete set, rather than drawing one from a deck
  • expectation that this will take over the course of days or weeks, rather than immediately (more realistic for people to go home, get objects, come back at their own convenience
  • introduction of “blue” prompts (could be something like “legacy prompt”) and accompanying discussion booklet to more explicitly guide conversations towards inheritance

At the time I made this, I still intended that once these cards have been discussed, they would live with their correlating object until later discovery or delivery. However, it now seems like the completed cards should be left together to tell a narrative, and that objects might be better identified with an indicator of a story or that there is a card with a story out there, rather than with the actual card that tells it.

April 26: Testing Planning, or, Things That are Still Unclear


  • Who should begin this process, the older participant/the one closer to death or the younger participant/the one that will live on?


  • How many prompts do participants feel that they can handle taking charge of finding items for? 3? 5? 7?
  • what are the prompts in each category that people feel they have the most connection to? can others be nixed?
  • How long does it take for people to think of an appropriate item? Can this happen in a few minutes or will people want to go through their items to find those that fit?


  • What are the kinds of items that people think about when they look at the prompts?
  • What is an appropriate way to tag these items?
  • Does the information live with the item, or is the item marked that it was the answer to a prompt and the information lives elsewhere?


  • copy clearly needs to be rewritten with a kinder, more encouraging tone
  • should the word “participant” be used, or something else?
  • should receive/recipient be used, or should I use inherit/inheritor? something else?
  • two sets of instructions: one on inside of box top or laying on top of the cards, and one in the booklet that goes to each participant (different — one for one person, one for everyone)
  • test out prompts with people — is my intention clear? is this a prompt that people can identify an object for?
  • test out instructions with people — what is the activity/discussion like for this set of instructions?

April 28: Feedback Notes

  • ways to find the object from the card, if you are not keeping the cards and the object together
  • figuring out what will happen to the cards is important
  • important that it is the same experience for both players, and its not the preparation for death but the actual death that would change the meaning of the cards
  • a lot of value in objects is because of the meaning we ascribe to them because of the relationships we share that surround it
  • testing: have people write their own prompts on their cards (blank Apples to Apples cards)
  • materiality, what should this be made out of? will the cards be displayed?
  • the more mundane it appears, the more approachable it is (it doesn’t feel momentous to do)
  • copy: participating, partner, “someone special”, what do I call the people participating?
  • don’t frame the game (in the instructions or in the description etc.) in any morbid way
  • don’t guide the discussion so much that you’re altering it, don’t over-instruct
  • what are the situational contexts when you would use this?
  • what inspires first use?
  • what do you imagine your experience being like? scary? fun?
  • who would you play with?

May 2: Informal Testing

I conducted a series of informal interviews/consultations as well as a more run-through of Conversation Pieces to determine its effectiveness as a concept and as a product in this iteration.

Jeff: 22 y/o male, married with 1 year old son

Jeff has limited experience with the development of Conversation Pieces. We sat down to discuss how young couples may use the product. We did not play through the game, but just looked through the concept and prompts with the intention to decide to play or not.

  • knows that he will have to start a formal will soon, has not thought about specific items
  • would be excited to do this activity with his wife to start getting on the same page of what to include in the will, and what to think about keeping when they move into their next apartment in a few weeks
  • sees it also as a bonding/reflection time with his wife
  • says it could be seen as a little momentous but at least in the iteration it is now it is not, “but I love this kind of thing”
  • Thinking of items not just to pass onto his family or son later on, but what he should keep now that his son might enjoy even in a few years
  • Thoughts: could this be provided as a free service, or something that could be downloaded and printed out in however many copies, if a group or whole family wanted to play?

Albert: 22 y/o male

Albert also has limited experience with the Development of Conversation Pieces. We discussed what may inspire first use and who may participate in the activity.

  • feels that he would be able to have these discussions without a facilitation, even if it was through objects might just ask about someone’s else’s object that he was curious about (“Hey I’ve noticed that statuette you have sitting on your mantle for years, tell me about that and why you have it”)
  • the activity being momentous isn’t really an issue, that it seems pretty accessible
  • the longevity may be the issue, seems to have a lot of parts for each person to take care of, could it be scalable for people to do as much or as little as they like in a long or short period of time?
  • he may play with his grandparents, someone that he wouldn’t just be able to ask a question of or doesn’t have enough context to ask a question of
  • would this be suggested by whoever is more curious about the other person but recognizes a barrier to asking them directly?
  • may have trouble finding 2 people close enough to do this activity that both see value in reflection and learning about another’s story that haven’t already had these kind of conversations

Temple: 21 y/o male

This is Temple’s first experience with Conversation Pieces he read the instructions, prompt cards, discussion questions, and gave me his thoughts.

  • seems to have 3 voices, 2 players with an invisible guiding voice
  • could people have ownership over that guiding voice/therapist/question asker? this depends on the voice of the product itself and how much guidance is required to achieve an effect
  • voice recorder or camera might be included to capture more thoughts about the objects or to record the interaction between the people
  • what value does this have for both parties? could the completed prompt cards be kept after death to have some kind of connection to that person? does this need to be explicitly said? (YOU’D BETTER KEEP THIS BOX BECAUSE IT IS PROBABLY GOING TO BE VALUABLE TO YOU LATER)
  • picked out prompts that he feels that he could find items for, picked barely a majority of blue cards (I believe I wrote these prompts in a way to elicit certain responses, does it make it easier to find items? Does this affect the authenticity of the items chosen for these prompts?)
Prompt Cards Temple feels that he has the most connection to, because they are written in a specific (non-vague) way that he doesn’t really need to interpret/work to understand before finding an object to fit.

May 3: Formal Testing

I conducted a complete run-through of Conversation Pieces to test how the experience would work from end to end.

Conversion to Packet

To help test Conversation Pieces remotely, I converted the instructions, prompts, and discussion questions into a packet form that can be previewed below and downloaded here.

New Instructions

Meet and Divide

Each Conversation Pieces box includes two sets of materials, one for you and one for your partner. Divide the materials so each partner receives one Instruction Booklet, one set of Prompt Cards, and one Discussion Questions Booklet. Take your set of materials home.

Collect and Record

Take time to shuffle through the Prompt Cards and begin to think of your belongings — those you use daily, those on display, and those in storage. If any of your belongings come to mind when reading a Prompt Card, jot down information about that belonging on the back of the card. If the item is accessible, you may retrieve it

Gather and Share

Get together with your partner. Bring your completed Prompt Cards and any special objects, or Conversation Pieces, you may have found. Flip a coin to determine who shares first. When it is your turn, share the prompt and information on the back of the prompt card. To guide the discussion of your Conversation Pieces, you may refer to the Discussion Questions.


I tested the game with my parents, Brian and Jeanne.

Meet and Divide

We all met together over FaceTime on Sunday, April 30, for me to explain the premise of testing Conversation Pieces: that I would email them the packet form of the activity, that they would read the instructions and follow them to the best of their ability. We planned to meet up on FaceTime on Wednesday night to conduct the “Gather and Share” portion of the activity.

Collect and Record

They completed the “Collect and Record” portion separately — my dad was at a remote apartment in Dallas with limited access to his belongings, and my dad was at our home in Missouri. They had not discussed the activity until we all met together. When I asked how choosing items for the prompts had gone, they both said the same thing, surprisingly — that they had first made a list of the items that they cared about, and then chose prompts that would fit them.

  • this should be presented as an option in the instructions, to work from object to prompt (the prompts could then be used more as guidance for how to think more critically about the objects)
  • should be clear that you could choose more than one prompt per object
  • both thought about the future of their items in the same way — how big and valuable is the item, do they want to “burden” someone with it?

My dad completed 7 prompts, and my mom finished 12.

Brian’s Completed Prompts

Jeanne’s Completed Prompts

My mom used the discussion questions to guide her “Collect and Record” time. She listed her special items on this page first, then tried to match them up with prompts.

Gather and Share

We all met back up on Facetime 3 days after I gave my parents the Conversation Pieces packet. They chose to “Gather and Share” on the couch in the living room of the Dallas apartment.

The Process:

  • shuffled around papers until someone volunteered to go first
  • only brought the items with them that they were wearing: wedding rings, jewelry, but one didn’t have access to their items and the other crossed the country and didn’t want to take them with her
  • When asked who they may do this with other than each other, Brian had trouble identifying someone in his family he’d find it enjoyable to do with(his mom wouldn’t play along or would have trouble focusing, he may use the prompts and guiding questions to trick her into it, feels that he knows what she wants to give to people), but he may do it with his kids
  • Jeanne said she may do it with her parents because she felt that it would be equal, not just being talked at (younger person doesn’t want the older person to drone on)
  • everyone wants to be heard, equalizing conversation, both sides have to be interested in other person
  • Feel that if they were just asked about one of these objects out of the blue, they would not respond in the same way as they would after going through the Guiding Questions — like that reflection time
  • Brian saw some themes emerge in his items, when he started to open up to the world and travel, show he was different than his brother, etc.
  • Getting your feelings/emotions/thoughts organized and coherent before trying to present them to another people

The Items:

  • frequently talked about where they keep their items, esp. struck by my dad who knew exactly where everything should be without even looking for his items — guiding questions?
  • talked about the items’ significance to not just them, but to their parents, their kids, played into who they wanted to get the items eventually and why (Brian keeps items because it reminds him of his dad’s independence, striking out from Ireland to America on his own, feels that he has some of that in him as well)
  • some of the items (Jeanne’s baby book) they recognize as important to themselves, but doubt anyone would want (“I have to keep it”)
  • Brian comments on above that he would still like to go through all his mom’s photo books even though they’re full of people and places he doesn’t recognize, just to see if theres anything in there that he does want to take out and keep
  • Frequently tell little vignettes about the objects (Brian used to take a little Native American pot his mom bought for $5 to elementary school for show and tell, turns out that it is by a famous potter and is worth some money)
  • When asked about nostalgic items, Brian chose an item from the 50’s (nostalgic era), Jeanne chose an item from a time in her life she was nostalgic for (moving to North Carolina into her first house with Brian)
  • They both chose their wedding rings for items they could not live without, chose because “There’s nothing else I would be devastated to not have. If a robber came in and stole it and I got the insurance…you couldn’t compensate me in any way for the loss of it.”
  • Only one digital/non physical item was recognized, the Google account Brian keeps of important documents, photos, memories, etc.
  • Item that holds information: Jeanne is reminded of letters she and Brian wrote each other when they were in a long-distance relationship before marriage, wants to go back through them and remember how they felt about things she doesn’t even remember now — might just keep a few
  • Reminder of an accomplishment: Jeanne’s marathon medals, “You gotta keep your medals…I don’t care what happens to them. They just matter to me”
  • New prompt: memory of a place or location


  • when asked what will happen to the sheets, Brian will scan and put the scans in the Google drive, Jeanne wants to rewrite some of her answers based on the discussion
  • feel that the discussion was altered by their marriage, may have shared different details if playing with someone else — may want to write down the date and who you played with
  • could imagine doing this at Thanksgiving, if people are staying over for a night and have time to fill
  • What follows this conversation?
  • Jeanne says if she did it with her parents she take them into the shed after and say “Look at all of this shit. If any of this has a good story or is important to you, you have to tell me because it all looks the same to me. Otherwise it’s gone.”

May 12: Final Project


Some conversations are difficult to start. When talking to your loved ones about your legacy, it helps to have somewhere to begin. Conversation Pieces uses sentimental belongings to help family, friends, and loved ones come together to discuss what is important.

Conversation Pieces consists of 2 activities for you and a partner. First, you will each use your box of materials to think about your special items. Then, you’ll come together to share what you reflected upon — stories of the past and wishes for the future.


Conversation Pieces is a discussion started for you and a friend, family member, or loved one. Choose and convene with your Conversation Pieces partner. Each of you receives a box that contains this Handbook, a set of Conversation Cards, and a bag of fasteners. Before you bring your materials home for Activity 1, set up a time to meet with your partner again for Activity 2.

Reflect and Record

Think about your special belongings — those in use daily, on display, and in storage. If any of your items can be matched with a Conversation Card, jot down information about that item on the back of the corresponding Card. The Guiding Questions may help you in this process. When the Card is complete, tear off the bottom and use the included fasteners to ‘tag’ the item with its significance.

Gather and Discuss

Get back together with your partner. Bring your completed Conversation Cards and any items you may have found. Take turns sharing the story of your items using the information on your cards and the Guiding Questions. After both of you have shared, you may want to set up a time to further discuss the more serious Guiding Questions with your partner or someone else you trust.

Guiding Questions

What is this item?

How and when did you acquire it?

Where do you keep this item?

Why did you choose it for this prompt?

Why have you kept this item?

What do you hope will happen to this item in the future?

Are you planning to pass this item down to anyone?

When and by whom should this item be passed down?

Where will this item be stored until it is passed down?

Should this item be in your will?

Should any other item or document accompany this object when passed down?

Are there any legalities associated with this item?

Conversation Cards

A reminder of a happy time

A reminder of a difficult time

A reminder of a life event

A reminder of a special place

A reminder of an accomplishment

A connection to a loved one

A connection to a friendship

A connection to someone you miss

A connection to family

An item you were given

An item you protect

An item that inspires nostalgia

An item you could not live without

An item that holds information

An item that that tells your story

An item that was passed down

An item that will be passed down

The item you have kept the longest

5x write your own

May 16: Reflection

Process, Overall

Vivian and I have been talking about the possibility of doing a death related project for quite a while, and even as we started, we had no idea what our final project would be. Inspired by products such as the Mushroom Death Suit and the Urban Death Project we were leaning much more towards the later, logistical parts of the American death process, looking at questions like “How do we redesign the death and disposal process for the societal, economic, and environmental needs of today?” As we moved through our research, however, it seemed that intervention was needed much earlier, to change the way we think about death in the first place.

This led me into researching how we conceptually prepare for death, which affects the planning and execution of our wishes for ourselves and our family, and in turn affects everything else. We started looking into questions like “How can we change the way we think about death?”. In my conversations with hospice professionals and through The Future of Looking Back by Microsoft Research (which I highly recommend as a resource for thinking about the sentimentality of new, old, physical, and digital items), I was able to identify our special belongings as an entry point into preparing for these discussions.

During the research and development phase of this project, I found our all-group meetings incredibly helpful in identifying parts of the our work or problem space to look into, and what may not be as important to look into under these time constraints. I appreciated all insights from Bruce and Lauren including personal experiences with the subject matter, research resources, conceptual projects, and real-world products.

If I were to go through this process again, however, I believe that I should spend less time in the research phase— instead of trying to find my way to something interesting and viable, utilizing Bruce and Lauren further as experts in the field and asking for direction explicitly as part of the feedback process, including more meetings and detailed updates.

Product, Plans

Conversation Pieces is one of my favorite projects that I have worked on at CMU, because I believe that it is grounded in research, has been reasonably and responsibly tested, and is a useful tool for individuals and families to use for its intended purpose and as a personal reflection activity. I believe that both Conversation Pieces and the research supporting it should be continued, and in the coming months I plan to document the product as-is (after required adjustments to the copy and communication design), and test it more rigorously as my next step. I agree with the feedback in our final meeting about expanding the product to include more or fewer participants (and to move away from the word participants), build support as an individual activity, and support multiple discussions with multiple participants. I hope to also reach out to the designers/producers of similar products to gain an idea of how CP may be used — in the home, as part of a workshop, as a professional tool for estate planning, etc. and what it may take to get it placed in these scenarios.

Many thanks are due to Bruce Hanington and Lauren Herckis for advising, guiding, and directing myself and Vivian Qiu throughout the process of this Independent Study. Their expertise in the fields of Design, Anthroplogy, and their special interest in the subject matter were crucial to the research and development of our final products. We are so grateful for them!