Things, Rituals and Fine Dying
Good death can be defined as decent end-of-life services and respectable treatment of the dead. Unlike medical or social service experts who are working hard for Good Death, we, a collective of researchers using design methodology and thinking to investigate new social practices, are advocating a different term that we invented: Fine Dying.
In a new book, From Here To Eternity, 1 mortician Caitlin Doughty travels the world and explores death-care innovators’ new death practices from different cultures and defines them as Good Death. While these are very interesting, we prefer the term Fine Dying. As Fine Dining is defined as “a style of eating that usually takes place in expensive restaurants, where especially good food is served to people, often in a formal way,” and usually with special care, we use Fine Dying to express how much care we can offer to all our dying matters. It is about on-going processes for citizens to co-investigate unexpected new possibilities for our own dying matters in our city.
Fine Dying Things
Recently, there are a lot of new ideas about dying such as green burial, body composting and new spaces for mourning and grieving, etc. However, as death is a taboo subject, many new ideas cannot be implemented because of fixed social values.
In order to offer more choices for fine dying experiences, we believe we need to adopt a more holistic approach and disrupt this taboo system. In the discipline of design research, “design things” refers to design beyond the making of a single object, and viewing design projects as socio-material assemblies of humans and artifacts. The collective A.Telier who wrote the book, Design Things (2011)2 , offered an innovative view of design thinking and design practice, envisioning ways to combine creative design with a participatory approach encompassing aesthetic and democratic practices and values.
Our first Fine Dying Project (2013) also focused on the transition between the living and the dead. It concluded with the Open Diamond Project in which we explored the possibilities for the dying to design their “death jewellery” with the living who are going to receive the pieces. The transition starts when ashes of the dead are turned into synthetic diamonds until the “death jewellery” is created and passed to the living one.
We created a series of speculative objects to document Hong Kong citizens’ aspiration for this new technology: “keeping a loved one in the form of gemstones”, e.g., when a man in his 40s accepts the concept that his mother will turn into a piece of gemstone which can stay with him all the time but he doesn’t want to touch “her”. Designer Pascal Anson transferred his concern into the Light (2015) – which was inspired by a candle holder – to hold your loved one’s death gemstone in an enclosed tube; when you miss him/her you can turn on the power. As Anson explains, “A light of 1 candela (1lux per m2) is emitted through the (ash-made) gemstone and softly lights a room with its glow. This light is not sufficient to do anything more than contemplate, reminisce and perhaps pray if you would like to.”3 This speculative design is enabling the transition of the dying but more importantly linking the dying and living worlds.
Intangible and Tangible Rituals
On the other hand, there are still some traditions offering us opportunities to embrace the dead: in Japan, mourners practice kostuage, using chopsticks to transfer the cremated skeletal bits of their loved ones into urns, and in a remote area of Indonesia, villagers mummify, dress, feed and even sleep beside their dead, etc.44
Another one is the Chinese practice of burning joss paper. Our belief is that the deceased have similar needs in the spirit world as in the natural world. This is why a great variety of joss paper objects are produced for the living to purchase and burn at funerals, on ancestor birthdays and during important holidays for deceased relatives to exist comfortably in the afterlife.
Actually, the act of burning joss paper has a symbolic meaning of transition: a ritual to link the living and the dead. Joss paper custom is rich with symbolism and is a type of tradition passing through generations. Joss paper offerings are physical representations of wealth and daily materials in the natural world. Through the act of burning, they are supposed to transit to the spirit world. It reflects the value the Chinese place on filial piety and respect for one’s elders and ancestors.
In our second version of Fine Dying Project (2017)55, the concept of transition was developed through objects created for rituals. Our aim is to transform burial spaces and systems by changing the fundamentals. Our first proposed solution is named the Envelope, designed by Milk Design Hong Kong, which is a one-off ash scatterer for a garden burial ceremony. It is the result of a co-creation process between 200 young and 100 older Hong Kong citizens. They expressed a series of their aspirations for fine dying experience in Hong Kong city and we decided to select those focusing on garden burial, which is one of the green burial methods promoted by the Hong Kong Government.
As well as a new personal device, the Envelope is also innovated as a paper object, which aligns with the Chinese tradition of burning joss paper to show respect for one’s elders and ancestors. The transition between the deceased and the living world provided by the Envelope also provides the opportunity to make space and take time to remember the loved ones in our lives. Our entire goal is enabling citizens to “design” their own ceremony and customise the tools as much as possible and this is why the design of the Envelope is inspired by a combination of a white letter paper and an envelope so that citizens can write their messages on it before it is transformed to an ash scatterer and vanishing into smoke.
1 Gerrard, Nicci. “With the End in Mind and From Here to Eternity review – how to banish fear and shame around dying.” The Guardian, January 8, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/21/with-the-end-in-mind-kathryn-mannix-from-here-to-eternity-caitlin-doughty-book-review.
2 The MIT Press, Design Things, accessed February 1, 2018, https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/design-things.
3 HKDI DESIS Lab. Open Design in Action: Design Debates & Projects for our Open Society. Hong Kong: IVE, HKDI and HKDI DESIS Lab, 2016.
4 Caitlin Doughty, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017).
5 HKDI DESIS Lab, Co-designing Our Future Fine Dying, accessed February 1, 2018, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/598ac2d9f14aa124338b30fd/t/5a65a6c5419202c75ae33398/1516611283209/Enable+Press_jan2018_SIDLab_finedying01.pdf.
Dr Yanki Lee
Co-Founder of Enable Foundation, a social design agency in Hong Kong. Dr Lee was a Design Research Fellow at Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Inclusive Design over a decade and founded a social design agency, EXHIBIT at Golden Lane Estate CIC, in London. In 2013, she was invited by HKVTC to set up the HKDI DESIS Lab.