Posted by Jose Antonio Estevez Garcia
When my best friend died at the age of 38 it was a drama – not only his unexpected loss but also his funeral which, far from helping us to face that moment, only added more pain to those grievous days.
The reason is quite simple: when Angel died his parents were in shock and the funeral was designed following what tradition dictates. This resulted in an event that betrayed his memory and created terrible memories that are difficult to forget – for example, memories of the viewing.
Viewing is a mandatory element in Spanish funerals and it is aimed to allow people to “physically” farewell the one who passed away. When I was told that my friend had died I thought nothing could be so painful until I saw him in the coffin with a broken gesture in his face. Until that moment I only had memories of him smiling and sharing all the goodness he brought to my life. Seeing his dead body in a coffin only opened a new wound. Many people who attended the funeral shared a similar feeling. In my opinion, tradition should only rule our lives if it helps us in any way, otherwise it may be time for a change.
I quit my job in Spain to come to the UK to explore my most creative side, so I started a master’s called “Applied Imagination” at Saint Martins College (one of the most prestigious centers of Art and Design in the world).
Within the master I am developing a research project where I am analyzing ways in which traditional industries to evolve in response to demand for personalized innovative services by customers. To develop this idea I am researching into how creative methodologies such as “Design Thinking” and “Lateral Thinking” can challenge conservative industries with innovative business models co-created by the customers of the previously mentioned personalized services. In summary, it is a bespoke innovation driven by customer demand in traditional industries as a way to disrupt their current business model.
To develop and test my findings I have chosen the funeral industry which, because of strong tradition, is quite reluctant to change. The funeral of my beloved friend made me think that a change in this sector could help other people. The approach proposed in this application case of my project is not against tradition; but in favor of opening our minds to personalized funerals in which traditional and/or innovative elements may help relatives and friends feeling as better as possible, given the circumstances.
In my opinion, the key to reconcile opposed views about the arrangements among those who will attend a funeral is that the deceased makes a decision about it before dying. Exactly like what people do when they choose whether they prefer burial or cremation, but getting into all the other details, like in a wedding (a funeral is not less important as to not give them a thought, specially if you care about the ones who will live your farewell).
To test my proposal I have prepared the video of my funeral, whose aim is to avoid mourning my death but to celebrate my life, what I call a “happy funeral” i.e. a funeral in which all the elements are thought to avoid creating sad memories and aim to generate a positive state of mind. The video is posted above and has been watched to date by 1130 people.
In addition to the video initiative, I have interviewed different stakeholders and gatekeepers and gathered amazing experiences shared by the people who have answered the survey published with the video. I am also researching into funerals in different countries, cultures and religions, trying to determine which elements can help change the state of mind in a funeral from a sad one into a positive one as, in my understanding, this will play an essential supporting part in the required process of accepting and fighting to overcome the pain of the loss of a loved one.
I have had the chance to talk with the sister of a 26 year-old guy who died in Spain last August. It seems that, some weeks before passing away, they had occasional conversations about death where he said he wanted a party if he died.
Unfortunately this happened and his family decided to respect his last will. The death notice they published in the local newspaper was later diffused at national level because it was the first time in Spain a funeral had been announced as if it was a party. And it was a party. A special one where there were moments for tears, but also moments to sing and dance and smile, reminding everyone of the most outstanding feature of this guy: his happiness.
She explained to me that when you have to face the death of a loved one the primary feeling you have is suffering, in her words, a selfish feeling because you only care about your pain without taking care of how that pain will have a negative effect in all the others attending the funeral (aren’t tears as contagious as laughter?). Overcoming the pain and making an effort to be happy to celebrate all the love and the good moments her brother had given to them was seen by her as a generous feeling because it demonstrated care for how others would live that moment. She had lost her brother one month previously, but she talked about him and his funeral in a positive and peaceful way.
When I told her about the funeral of my best friend I realized I still struggle to overcome certain memories that seem like open wounds in my mind. In our conversation it seemed that the “happy funeral” of her brother had helped her more than the traditional one I experienced when I lost my best friend. Apparently it also helped the family and friends of this guy. Even those who had a traditional opinion about the arrangements accepted Aitor’s last will, understanding that it was faithful to his personality and thus a respectful way to honor him.
Along with my video I have published a survey, anonymously answered so far by 220 people. Between 80% and 90% of them have said they would like a happy funeral; but most of them mentioned that they had never thought of the possibility of arranging a funeral in an alternative way. It seems that when people are given options, they open their minds to personalized solutions that may take elements from tradition but which also incorporate issues related to their own life.
And here is where the industry can make a difference, since less than half of the people stated in the survey that the funerals they had been to had helped them feel better. In several cases they state the opposite.
Isn’t this a motive for the professional sector to question whether traditional funerals effectively serve a positive purpose?