'I Don't Want Death To Be Such A Downer' | KERA News

'I Don't Want Death To Be Such A Downer'

Mar 21, 2015
Originally published on March 22, 2015 1:23 pm

"I don't want death to be such a downer" — that's what Paul Bennett, chief creative officer at the IDEO design firm, told California Sunday writer Jon Mooallem. NPR's Kelly McEvers speaks with Mooallem about Bennett's work "redesigning" death.

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For the past year, writer Jon Mooallem has followed the work of a man named Paul Bennett, a man who was interested in redesigning how we deal with death.

JON MOOALLEM: Paul is the creative director at IDEO, which is this sort of very legendary design firm. You know, their founders designed, like, the first Apple mouse, and they've done sort of all kinds of iconic design projects. And Paul was basically struck by the kind of dourness of death, of everything from, you know, the way we do funerals to end-of-life care, the aesthetics of hospitals. A lot of this was based on his experience watching his father die in England a number of years ago. And he really wanted to revolutionize - or redesign it, as he says.

MCEVERS: Right, and so it was 2014. It was Silicon Valley. The way to do that, of course, was an app. The proposed app was called After I Go. Can you tell us what the idea was, what the app would have done?

MOOALLEM: So Paul Bennett started looking for death-focused clients. And he found this man named Paul Gaffney, who was - had a startup making this app called After I Go. And basically, Gaffney originally thought of it as a very straightforward - he called it TurboTax for death. It was just a way to organize all your affairs, put everything in order. And in his sessions with IDEO, which are just these kind of freewheeling, enthusiastic brainstorming sessions with lots of Post-it notes flying all over the walls, they really came up with something that was a much bigger, kind of more emotionally-driven idea. They were having features on the app where you could maybe send text messages to your loved ones, you know, for years after you were dead, you know, leave different presents or geolocated little messages for people.

MCEVERS: What do you mean by a geolocated message for someone?

MOOALLEM: Oh, for example, suppose you're in, you know, Central Park and all of a sudden, your phone might vibrate and it would be a text message from your, you know, dead grandmother saying, you know, your grandfather and I used to like to sit on this bench. It's about 100 yards, you know, west of you. Why don't you go sit and enjoy the view like we used to do - or something like that. They basically realized that if they wanted to get people to use the app and fill out all of these kind of dull and depressing forms about, you know, do not resuscitate orders and things like that, they had to kind of bait them into it.

MCEVERS: I mean, you went to one of these brainstorming sessions, like you said, lots of Post-it notes. I mean, was anybody like that's kind of weird, you know? Did anybody raise a flag about that?

MOOALLEM: No. And I think that's both - as far as I could tell - both the weirdest part about IDEO and maybe also like one of the keys to its success. It's really just not a place where there's a lot of skepticism. I think they often just create these environments where everyone feels like they can say anything they want. Eventually, some really good and solid ideas will burble to the surface.

MCEVERS: So the app gets a lot of attention at first, and it seems like it's a promising idea. There's people investing in it. But then it had a short life. What happened?

MOOALLEM: Yeah. Well, eventually, what happened was Paul Gaffney eventually just kind of abandoned the app. He was having trouble finding programmers to work for the company. No one really wanted to work on an app about death. This wasn't something that was seen as fun, you know, like Uber or something that young people were actually...


MOOALLEM: ...Interested in.

MCEVERS: Or would use.

MOOALLEM: I think that was a big problem as well.

MCEVERS: From here, the story shifts away from Silicon Valley. Now Bennett and his team are working with something called the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. They want to make it a brand and a model for how people die. Jon Mooallem found the story turned out to be less about death and more about the life of ideas.

MOOALLEM: I think what I saw was, you know, at the very beginning, you know, you just had this one person at sort of the highest reaches of, you know, what you might call the innovation economy, you know, this kind of vague thing. And then yeah, I think you can see how these ideas trickle out into the culture.

MCEVERS: Like, the lesson here is there does not need to be an app for death, right?

MOOALLEM: Yeah. I mean, I'm sure there will be, though. You know...


MOOALLEM: ...there are - there are actually other apps similar to the one they were building that are still going.

MCEVERS: That's Jon Mooallem. His piece "Death, Redesigned" ran this week on californiasunday.com. Thanks so much.

MOOALLEM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.