Death Disrupted: A Systemic Look at How Changing Cultural Norms are Reshaping an Age-Old Industry
This was a collaborative project completed with Maryam Mohamedali and Hallie Siegel in 2018. Together we developed a gigamap of the death system that is meant to help policy makers and industry stakeholders better understand:
how fears, taboos, and cultural values around death and the body have evolved over the years into today’s semi-regulated multi-billion dollar death industry;
why the current death system is undergoing rapid change and where it might be headed; and
what would need to happen in order to navigate towards a more preferable future.
Pushed by drivers such as rising costs, an ageing population, urbanization, and environmental concerns, the death system is under pressure and in a state of flux. The funeral industry is worth more than $20B globally (Quirk, 2017), with the cost of a funeral rising faster than the cost of housing by up to 3:1 in some regions (Sun Life Insurance, 2017). Meanwhile, baby boomers are nearing life expectancy just as urban cemeteries are reaching capacity (Strangwayes-Booth, 2013), creating a squeeze on available burial space and on the wallets of bereaved families (Sun Life Insurance, 2017). Plus, polluting cadaver disposal practices have led to stricter burial legislation and pollution abatement fines that further drive cost (Sun Life Insurance, 2017). Yet from eco-burials and low-cost life celebrations, to cryogenics and online memorials, many new options (some real and other hypothetical) are appearing in the marketplace, indicating that the death industry is on the edge of profound transformation. What do these indicators say about our changing values, and how might they shape (and be shaped by) the death industry in the future?
We present a gigamap of the death system that is meant to help policy makers and industry stakeholders better contextualize why and how the current death system is undergoing rapid change, and where it might be headed. The map highlights:
the key drivers that are pressurizing the death system;
the basic functions of the system as a whole;
the key stakeholders, including those who earn a living off the death system, regulators, and of course the dying person and their bereaved;
the human psychology and cultural values that underpin burial practices and shape the bereavement experience,
the regulatory processes that help to shape (or hinder) system innovation; and
the natural physical decay process that dictates the acceptable timeframe within which the death system must dispose of the corpse. These factors are set against
a multi-horizon timeline that maps how the death system has innovated throughout human history, and which trends are shaping possible futures of the system.
This synthesis approach to studying the death industry in context allows us to make connections and inferences about the overall health and directionality of the current system, and to suggest possible interventions that could lead towards a more positive and sustainable future. We conclude that, based on the foreseeable financial, environmental and demographic conditions, the current death system is ripe for transformation and is likely to see significant regulatory, cultural and market change by the time the Boomer generation reaches the end of their lifetime.
Once this influential cohort has died out, the death industry will begin to contract, and there is unlikely to be significant opportunity for systemic transformation again until their children -- the Millennial cohort -- being to approach life expectancy a generation from now.
“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” - Benjamin Franklin, 1789
The death system is incredibly complex; it would take decades (not weeks) to conduct anything that could come close to a thorough study of the system. For these reasons we set the boundaries of our research to examine only the moment of death onward. Due to the available research material, we also tended to concentrate on Western examples. Further research could be done to explore how changes in palliative care (care of the dying) and euthanasia might be influencing the death system. In addition, a cross-cultural comparison could be useful to better understand important shifts in the Canadian context given our growing immigrant population.
In terms of the map as a visualization tool, further work could be done to better visually synthesize the various maps and timelines generated for this project. For example, it may be possible to visually connect the various timelines together (Decay Timeline, Bereavement Timeline, etc.).
This gigamapping exercise put the death industry into context as a dynamically evolving system, and allowed us to synthesize connections and inferences about the overall health and directionality of its current state. By blending foresight and systems thinking methods we identified a number of competing and complementary trends. A causal layered analysis of these trends suggest that some of them represent a continuation of the current dominant paradigm of conquest over death (our Modern Day Pyramids), while others appear to represent a significant paradigm shift, for example towards sustainability and the idea that death is something to be embraced. Taken together these trends suggest that the death system may be nearing a critical moment when levers of change might have a significant impact.
A number of possible interventions were identified that could lead towards a more flexible, human-centered, and sustainable future than the death system currently offers. However once the influential Boomer cohort has died out, the pressure toward transformational system change is likely to ease off. Given how long regulation takes to respond to industry innovation, now may be a good time to look at systemic policy changes.