August 09, 2021
"So much about death is agonizingly unknowable: When. Where. Lymphoma or lightning strike. But ... there are still dimensions of the experience under our control."
“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence," 16th-century proto-blogger Montaigne wrote in his magnificent meditation on death and the art of living, "is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago." Half a millennium later, journalist Jon Mooallem revisits the subject of our eternal longing to control death in his fantastic California Sunday Magazine feature, profiling IDEO executive Paul Bennett's quest to redesign death:
There’s an ugliness — an inelegance — to death that Paul Bennett gradually came to find unacceptable. It seems to offend him the way a clumsy, counterintuitive kitchen tool might, or a frumpy font.
So much about death is agonizingly unknowable: When. Where. Lymphoma or lightning strike. But Bennett recognized there are still dimensions of the experience under our control. He started zeroing in on all the unspoken decisions around that inevitability: the aesthetics of hospitals, the assumptions and values that inform doctors’ and families’ decisions, the ways we grieve, the tone of funerals, the sentimentality, the fear, the schlock. The entire scaffolding our culture has built around death, purportedly to make it more bearable, suddenly felt unimaginative and desperately out of date.
“All those things matter tremendously," Bennett told me, “and they’re design opportunities." With just a little attention, it seemed — a few metaphorical mirrors affixed to our gurneys at just the right angle — he might be able to refract some of the horror and hopelessness of death into more transcendent feelings of awe and wonder and beauty.
Read in full here – Mooallem's is one of the finest pieces of journalism to come by in years – then complement with Sherwin Nuland's foundational treatise on the art of dying and these [unusual children's books that help kids make sense of death].