Designing for Choice at the End of Life: does COVID-19 Shift our Collective Experience of Death Online?

Death and dying affects us all but despite its deep significance questions of what to do with our bodies, legacies and memories are often overlooked. Our legacies are now blended sites of on- and offline identities that come with questions of privacy, ownership and control, continuously being redefined both socially and legally.

Creative responses to digital and material rituals can be used to explore how the things that designers and people make have the agency to construct new social relations. These shifts challenge what the dead mean to us and how aesthetics, bodies and environments merge to create new associations and experiences of death. They create a space for design intervention, not simply in the creation of new products but in the conception of what it means to make space for our current and future relationship to mortality. The emergence and spread of COVID-19 has increased the prevalence of death, dying and disease in the media and our own lives, creating a unique contemporary understanding of the fragility of our medical, economic and political systems, alongside a deep global need for exploring how we can be physically distant but remain socially connected. It has also laid bare local and global inequalities.

The paper will reflect on how Covid-19 has shaped new perspectives on digital funerals, legacies and memorials and share some of the ways that design communication has been used within the Love After Death research project. This research project is a collaboration with a consortium of Death Positive Libraries and aims to co-create tools that inspire more transparency around choices for the end of life. The use of physical installations and an online COVID-19 programme challenges the overused and unnecessary arguments about the taboo of talking about death by demonstrating how discussions about human mortality are an everyday opportunity that promote citizen choice within their own legacies.

Speaker bio

Dr Stacey Pitsillides is a VC Senior Research Fellow in the School of Design at Northumbria University. Her research explores death and technology through participatory design by collaborating with hospices, festivals, libraries, and scientists. Through a series of publications and practice, including the Death Positive Library: Love After Death, this research has been commissioned for NESTA’s FutureFest, London Design Week, and DesignTO festival, Toronto. Since 2010 she has also brought together academics, industry leaders, activists and technologists as a founding members of the international Digital Death Day events and more recently as part of the Death Online Research Network committee.

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