Joanna Spoth (OpenIDEO), B.J. Miller (Zen Hospice), Dana Cho (IDEO) and Shoshana Berger (IDEO) talk about the role of design in death and dying.

Re:Imagine

Re:Imagine | End of Life is a citywide conversation about living and dying through art, experience and design. Thousands of people attended 30+ events produced throughout the San Francisco Bay Area during the last week of October.

Event producer Brad Wolfe, also a musician, closes out Re:Imagine’s launch event at the Grace Cathedral.

I used to be afraid of cemeteries. But on this mid-afternoon in October, with rain beginning to fall, I literally danced my fears away.

“Movement,” explained workshop leader Graecian Goeke, “is a way to bring life into death — it makes you feel even more alive.” With an entire troupe of seasoned dancers and curious first-timers, an Oakland cemetery awoke with the movement of life in a way I could have never imagined.

From the cemetery, I headed back across the San Francisco Bay Bridge and made it just in time for a discussion with world-renowned palliative care physician Dr. Ira Byock — author of the popular book The Four Things That Matter Most— and Dr. Joon Yun, creator of the $1 Million Prize for Longevity. I sat transfixed as these brilliant thinkers went back and forth on whether our health system should focus more concretely on extending our lifespans beyond what we think possible, or whether the looming prospect of death is actually crucial for the sweetness of life.

I ended the evening by sneaking into the back of the Swedish American Hall, where I joined a reverent but enthusiastic crowd of 300 people who were engrossed in a show called “You’re Going To Die” — also an idea submitted during the OpenIDEO End of Life Challenge — where a donzen musicians and poets graced the stage to sing, emote, grieve and celebrate death and dying.

Throughout the week, there were more than 30 events such as these, with so many different ways into this tabooed topic — everything from physicians performing personal stories of their own experiences with death to virtual and augmented reality art shows. Each day was diverse, with the goal of opening people up to new possibilities and perspectives.

When I was first asked by OpenIDEO to consider the way in which art and creativity intersect with death and dying, I certainly didn’t start by imagining my days would be filled with cemeteries, debates, and concerts. As a musician whose songs are inspired by the loss of a close friend, I knew that one piece of art could not hope to contain the myriad of emotions and breadth of this conversation.

As ideas from around the world poured into OpenIDEO’s innovation platform, each highlighting a new way we might reimagine a better end-of-life experience, it became clear that a single piece of art was not enough. We also realized that one organization acting alone could never hope to represent all the ways in which we might hold space for this topic. There are already so many incredible individuals and organizations exploring death and dying through art, experience, storytelling, and design. We wanted to shine a light on them, and together offer something whole to the community. Doing this not only showcased the diversity and magnitude of the conversation, but also provided spaces for healing and reflection.

Some walked away from Re:Imagine End of Life calling it “fundamental” and “an uplifting sense of purpose and community — a wonderful antidote to the crazy world around us.” There was a shared understanding that together we were part of something visceral and connected.

So what’s next? We believe that there is a need for communities to come together to talk about the end of life. The roles of design, art and creativity are crucial to opening up this kind of conversation. Building on our week in San Francisco, we are planning to take Re:Imagine to other cities around the world, with the hope that each community might tap into its own creative voice and cultural context to explore this topic in a way that feels right.

We’d love to be in touch, whether you’re an event organizer interested in rolling up your sleeves and joining us to host Re:Imagine, or an organization interested in bringing this experience to your community. Though death and dying has been central to communities for thousands of years, we believe exploring, contemplating and celebrating it together will lead us to live more fully and connect us more deeply with each other and ourselves.

Read more stories about the people, ideas, and moments of OpenIDEO’s End of Life Challenge.