Should the British mourn or celebrate their dead?

Charles Cowling

 

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 can you buy cialis online 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?

 

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KevinJulia de MoscuJoseRichard RawlinsonJonathan Recent comment authors

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Kevin
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Kevin

I believe that a funeral needs to be sad. I think the body needs to be viewed, and I’m sorry that whoever prepared your friend’s body did such a bad job. Not everything can be happy, however, and to try and celebrate around death will only make things worse in the long run.

Julia de Moscu
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Julia de Moscu

Dios mio, Tevi, si ves este mensaje, mi e-mail shahil@rambler.ru

Jose
Guest

Richard, have you seen this news?
QR Code on Tombstone Creates Dynamic Memorial: http://mashable.com/2011/07/15/qr-code-tombstone/

Jose
Guest

“How can we approach the subtleties of different cultural practices and beliefs through design?”. For me the most important principle of design thinking is letting the users/consumers of your design be an active part of it. Many designers tend to think nobody but them know what their users/consumers need. Design thinking challenges that prejudice making designs connect with their target blending the professional knowledge of the designer with the personal experience of the target user. Is this of any help? Richard, as for your second question let me talk with a fellow student that is researching the relation between memories… Read more »

Jose
Guest

“As soon as you allow yourself to love someone it’s too late already; you’ve committed yourself to grieving them, and willingly, if they die before you. Do you not see a kind of beauty in that exquisite pact?”. I have some young friends who, after being brokenhearted for the first time, say they don’t want to fall in love again. I hope they will. In my opinion if you don’t allow yourself to be loved because of the fear of being hurt, you are already hurting yourself because we cannot live without being loved. When I met the man I… Read more »

Jose
Guest

Thanks so much, Richard. “Any genuine expression of love, whether it manifests itself in happiness or sadness, is beautiful”. A woman I know lost his 16 yo in a car accident. She said she loved him so much she cannot forget his loss. His room remains exactly as he left it years ago. She does not allow herself to be happy because that feeling would make her feel guilty. You may find her feeling beautiful. I don’t see what you see. If the natural sadness caused by the loss of a loved is not left behind, it will derive in… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Jose, something for your studies. I’m dashing off for a weekend somewhere where the computer screen don’t shine but here are a couple of questions posed in the first website I clicked on after Googling ‘death in the digital age’.

How can we approach the subtleties of different cultural practices and beliefs through design? What are the issues around ordinary technologies transforming into memorials, evoking powerful memories, nostalgia etc?

http://www.corporeality.net/museion/2010/01/17/death-in-the-digital-age/

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

Oh, Jose! Beauty is in grief, after the event when it’s already too late to change things. There’s no beauty whatever in someone dying – it’s fucking, fucking horrible to have someone die, and no amount of ‘beautiful’ grieving will ever alter that, and I would expect anyone to punch me on the nose if I tried to tell them otherwise. But yes, most certainly, many many people have told me a funeral was beautiful, and that it was helpful to be reminded of the beautiful truth that death is inevitable but love does not die, nor would we wish… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Jose, any genuine expression of love, whether it manifests itself in happiness or sadness, is beautiful. If either is forced, it’s not sincere, hence my hunch is in favour of a versatile but safe middle ground in funerals that allows us space for real feelings without expectations being projected on us. For me the best blank canvas is dignified ceremony in order to process the seriousness of death and loss. This can be, and is, followed by a livelier and less formal social gathering. A gig is fine if you’re up for a party, but if not it can give… Read more »

Jose
Guest

Let me please understand better the point of view of those of you who have related beauty and grief: Do you see beauty in real grief and sadness? Would you describe any of the funerals you have managed/celebrated as beautiful? In which sense? Have the mourners shared a similar feeling?

Thanks in advance for sharing your experience with me.

Jose
Guest

Sorry, when I said “everybody, dressed in rigorous black, leaves a real drama” I meant “everybody, dressed in rigorous black, lives a real drama”

Jose
Guest

Thanks Jonathan for your feedback. “I wonder who is responding to your survey, Jose, and what motivates them to believe (or just imagine perhaps)that a happy funeral is truly what they’d like. It’s not precisely what I’d want”. Sad funerals I all they have experienced so far, as for what they have answered in the survey, Jonathan. Apparently they haven’t seen the beauty of sadness when the ones being sad are themselves and the ones they love. Hence I don’t find so strange that they would like something different for their own funerals. When you say “It’s not precisely what… Read more »

Jose
Guest

Thanks for your very kind last post Gloria!
The Spanish word for “Forward!” is quite similar to “Avanti!”: ¡Adelante! :o)

Jose
Guest

Thanks a lot also to Katie and Melissa! I haven’t read those books but I will get them for sure. Thanks for the advice and for giving the chance to know more about the natural burials. I would love to.

Jose
Guest

Many thanks Jon and Ariadne! “Maybe the key to any good funeral is a framework and content that truly reflects the person who has died – their values and philosophies, their unique traits and experiences. Who/what they loved and will be remembered by”. I think that neither in Spanish would I have been able to express it better. Responding to Ariadne’s “I feel strongly that the chance to create/collaborate/contribute in various ways to the ritual of a funeral can really make a difference to how we start to deal with the loss and grief that naturally accompany a death”, and… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

PS The uniqueness of funerals is in part within us, in those private moments of contemplation. Silence is golden. There might be a case for less frenetic goings on, more stillness?

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Like everyone here, I appreciated your thoughtful blog. I also agree with the view that funerals are a mix of sad and happy feelings as we grieve a physical loss and remember good times shared. I’d add that, while a good funeral is indeed ‘a framework and content that truly reflects the person who has died,’ a ‘standard’ religious ritual can also reflect the deceased as much as those more overtly tailored to the individual. Both progressive and conservative funerals can be happy and sad, and do the job required of them. Last week, I attended a traditional, Anglican funeral… Read more »

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

I’ve just returned from running a workshop on funerals (hence the delay in commenting in more detail), and one lady pointed out that the funeral will have to feel like a gig that the person who died would have wanted to attend himself. I think she has a very good point. I would add to it that surprise is important to a good gig of any kind as well, because if you’ve seen it all before it lacks the real magic of a first time one off – and we’ve all been to Funerals Without Magic. As for a happy… Read more »

Belinda Forbes
Guest

When I have conducted a completely non-religious funeral, many church-goers go out of their way to thank me. They recognise that the send-off was ‘perfect’ for their friend or family member. Some have even said they would now consider non-tradtional elements for their own send-offs.

gloria mundi
Guest

Jose, you write so interestingly and so much from the heart that I am in no doubt that your research will be of very great value, and particularly interesting and unusual,as Katie says, because it is a design project, not a business model or a therapy-driven piece of work.
Choices, indeed. Mine would be to leave suggestions, material, notes, rather than a fixed request or demand. I won’t be there, they will! It will be for them. But I foresee that your design model will generate something fine with plenty of “elbow room” in it.
Avanti!
(Sorry, don’t know the Spanish for “forward!”)

Jose
Guest

Responding to Gloria (Many thanks all for your feedback! I have to go now to a meeting, but I will answer one by one to the others later): “I’m not sure it can ever be “one size fits all,” i.e. that a “happy” funeral is better than a “sad” funeral. Sometimes, perhaps sad memories are unavoidable, necessary even, and can exist right alongside happy ones?”. You are completely right. I guess there is no way to design a funeral for everybody attending to it. This is why I think that instead of leaving the decisions to the ones who will… Read more »

Katie Deverell
Guest

Brilliant Jose! Really inspiring and thought provoking. I won’t repeat all the comments made above but I really support what you are doing. I was quite involved in the design process in my last job and would love to see some of those creative principles being applied. Do let us know how it all goes and good luck!

Melissa Stewart
Guest

Sounds like great research you’re doing Jose. Have you read Making an Exit by Sarah Murray and The Mourner’s Dance by Katherine Ashenburg. They are both fascinating about ritual and the pros and cons of tradition.
I will be following your research with interest and if you want to know what types of send off go on at natural burial grounds feel free to get in touch.

james
Guest

Me too, Jose – I entirely sympathise with your feelings about the standardised disposal rituals – which might be strongly recommended for propriety’s or profit’s sake. My experience of my own family’s funerals leave me in no doubt that each one is different, and the more bespokely tailored and personal, the more involvement from those closest – the more satisfying the send-off. Like the above responses say.
Imposed ‘celebrations’ do not hit the spot. Done well, a ‘good’ funeral always seems somewhere to have a collision between grief and beauty.
Good luck with your work. Best wishes, james

Ariadne
Guest
Ariadne

Beautiful video, Jose. I too can echo what Gloria has written. Maybe the key to any good funeral is a framework and content that truly reflects the person who has died – their values and philosophies, their unique traits and experiences. Who/what they loved and will be remembered by. Your film showed exactly this, which is why it was so moving. I feel strongly that the chance to create/collaborate/contribute in various ways to the ritual of a funeral can really make a difference to how we start to deal with the loss and grief that naturally accompany a death. There… Read more »

Jon Underwood
Guest

Jose, thanks for that. I really enjoyed watching the video and reading your thoughtful post. I’ve been reflecting on this overnight with a view to making a comment. However I am happy to find that Gloria Mundi has pretty much expressed exactly my views except in a much more coherent way than I would have managed.

All the best for your work going forward.

gloria mundi
Guest

I’m sorry to hear of how the funeral of your friend added to your pain. Your research sounds fascinating, a very good idea. However, personally, I’m not sure about your emotional modelling. I’m not sure it can ever be “one size fits all,” i.e. that a “happy” funeral is better than a “sad” funeral. Sometimes, perhaps sad memories are unavoidable, necessary even, and can exist right alongside happy ones? It seems to me that the job of a funeral is to help people adjust to a world without the loved person; to adjust to losing their physical presence in this… Read more »

Jose
Guest

Thanks Jonathan.

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

Beautifully understated, Jose, and thank you.

I’ve got to dash, but rest assured I’ll be back.

Looking forward to responding to your survey.

Best wishes

Jonathan