What do you do when someone dies?
Every month, over one hundred million people enter this question into Google. They are met by dozens of websites linking to more websites filled with terms that many have never heard of before. As they try to figure out the difference between a coffin and a casket, or an heir and a beneficiary, the list of logistical tasks builds up.
I caught myself deciding if it’s worth it inter or bury my father’s ashes when he committed suicide in 2018. Five days after his traumatic death, my family and I packed leftover lasagna from a funeral celebration of his life. The days between his death and burial merged into an unimaginable moment; then it was all over. I was surrounded by support, but being my father’s next of kin, I still needed to quickly learn legal and industry terms while planning his funeral. During those five days, I made dozens of quick decisions, struggling to understand some of the questions I answered through a veil of shock. I had no idea at the time that this was only the beginning of two long years of bureaucratic logistics.
I was not alone. New Yorker Liz Eddy faced similar decisions when her grandmother died. She stood next to her grandmother’s body in a nursing home room and joined the millions of people who are turning to the internet for help on what to do next. When Eddie typed what do you do when someone dies, she expected to find a cohesive resource. Instead, her phone lit up with fragmented listings and links, many of which advertised expensive services.
A year after Grandma Eddie’s death, along with co-founder Alyssa Ruderman, she launched lamp, a comprehensive website offering step-by-step instructions on what to do before and after death. The platform combines organized interactive checklists with information and resources. Select Get Multiple Copies of the Death Certificate from the checklist and Lantern will explain why you need copies and how to get them. Click on the “Explore Green Burial Options” task and a short question and answer form will appear suggesting ways to include green services.
Lantern is just one player in the small but growing post-loss technology space, where companies offer solutions to the financial, logistical, legal and emotional consequences of death.
Before there were loss navigation apps, there were death doulas. Despite its etymological connection to the ancient practice of assisting childbirth, the death doula movement is relatively recent. But the beginning and end of life mark significant changes and emotions, and with them a flood of logistical challenges. Alua ArthurLos Angeles death doula and founder of Going with Grace, saw the isolation of grief and decided to better support people in three ways: helping healthy people become more death literate and follow comprehensive life plans, helping the dying find control over their death, and helping family members to complete the affairs of the lives of their loved ones.
“I don’t know of any fully effective application or technology that will take this burden off,” Arthur says, “because a lot of them are bureaucratic and require people to submit forms. It’s still an analog world.”
Even tech companies like Netflix and PayPal require manual work and often pages of documentation if mourners don’t have access to the deceased’s registration information. But Sympathy, another loss-making software company, wants to change that. The premium feature uses the best technology – financial calculations and form pre-filling – to automate the closing of the accounts of the deceased. Empathy co-founder Ron Gura says, “We’re taking what’s hard for humans and easy for machines and making it as simple and accessible as possible.” The company hopes to cut more than 26 hours per month, which is 46 percent families spend on the phone, figuring out the affairs of a relative.
Achieving this goal, Arthur explains, may require a combination of technology and personal support. “You have an app or website that you can use, but there is someone on the phone who can answer your questions or help you.”
Post-loss technology providers have integrated bespoke support into many services. But an easy-to-navigate user interface based on informative and clear checklists is the most helpful support a digital platform can provide. Each list of “to do” and “how to do” releases mental energy, but more importantly, they are all organized by time. Grouping tasks along the lines of “Ask These First” or “Things to Do in Week 3” visually counters the biggest misconception of mourners: everything related to the deceased—their family, property, finances, and possessions—should be handled as best as possible. faster.
“They have to take their time,” Arthur says of people in mourning. “These accounts will still be there. Do not rush”.
Sheri Kay, a death doula in Asheville, North Carolina, is committed to dispelling her clients’ expectations that they need to act quickly. “You can rest without feeling the urgency that something has to end and take the next step,” she says. “Hopefully we bring a sense of control to an out-of-control situation.”
This space allows families to have more leeway in responding to death. They may have time to speak with the death doula in the community, who often communicates word of mouth with mourners. They can reminisce about the partnership between their bank and app after a loss and learn how to plan a graveside service instead of a traditional funeral.
Making time for decisions that seem right for the deceased person and their loved ones is a way to honor each person’s loss, as each experience is unique. “People often say, ‘Sorrow is grief and there is grief,’” says Melissa Seligman, another Asheville death doula. “But if we don’t look at each person’s independent stories of grief, then we don’t understand each person’s situation.”
Many in the mortal care industry, from doulas to tech company founders, emphasize the importance of end-of-life care planning. The logistical burden after someone dies can be alleviated through careful pre-preparation, such as keeping track of account information, updating wills, and discussing funeral wishes with confidants. But Seligman admits that such a smooth transition is not a reality for many. She specializes in traumatic losses such as accidents or suicides, like my father’s. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that even the best-laid plans for ending life can be disrupted and lead to traumatic loss and, consequently, traumatic grief.
When you’re dealing with a traumatic loss, Seligman says, “You’re not really working with that person’s grief yet, you’re working with their shock. You can come in and say, “What do you need me to do? They may look at you like you’re crazy, like, “Do you think I know what I need right now?”
When we don’t have a clue, we tend to Google. But the burden of knowing the necessary paperwork, payments, and words of support should not fall entirely on grieving family and friends. Alua Artur dreams of a world where every workplace, school and community has at least one person who has completed a death literacy program and is able to provide support.
This person could be a doula who makes tea for you and calls funeral homes. It might look like a well-organized platform that allows you to do one task at a time for the 13 months it normally takes to complete a loved one’s business. Or it can be combined with the public concern for relatives that many people turn to, with an aunt who writes beautiful obituaries, and with a brother who speaks legal language.
“The consecration of technology seems relatively new,” says Seligman. “But if you can get into that free space and make it sacred, it’s a really valuable resource.”
It is also a growing resource. As online services like Lantern and Empathy expand to more death-positive young people, anyone can access their version of support. The software offers time and logistical assistance so that every bereaved can make a more informed choice. But it can only go so far.
“With technology, we have the desire to say that we don’t need humans anymore. This problem can be completely solved with software,” says Liz Eddy. “The reality is that the combination of technology and people is where you really gain strength.”
Through a combination of digital and in-person support, what to do when someone dies can go beyond a checklist that demystifies the momentary rush of tasks. It has something vital to offer to people facing one of life’s most painful inevitability – choices.
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