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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

After-Loss Tech Wants to Ease the Logistics of Death

What do you do when someone dies?

More than a hundred million people type this question into Google each month. They are met with dozens of websites linking to more websites, filled with terms many have never heard before. As they try to learn the difference between a coffin and a casket or an heir and a beneficiary, the list of logistical tasks piles up.

I found myself deciding whether to inter or inurn my father’s ashes when he died by suicide in 2018. Five days after his traumatic death, my family and I packed up leftover lasagna from the post-funeral celebration of his life. The days between his death and funeral merged into an unimaginable blink; then it was over. I was surrounded by support, but as my father’s next-of-kin, I still needed to rapidly learn legal and industry terms while planning for his funeral. I made dozens of quick decisions in those five days, hardly understanding some questions I answered through my fog of shock. At the time, I had no idea it was only the beginning of two long years filled with bureaucratic logistics.

I wasn’t alone. New Yorker Liz Eddy found herself facing similar decisions when her grandmother died. She stood beside her grandmother’s body in her nursing home room and joined the millions of people turning to the internet for help on what to do next. When Eddy typed what do you do when someone dies, she expected to find a cohesive resource. Instead, her phone lit up with fragmented lists and links, many marketing expensive services.

A year after her grandmother died, Eddy, along with co-founder Alyssa Ruderman launched Lantern, a comprehensive website that offers step-by-step guidance on what to do before and after a death. The platform combines organized, interactive checklists with information and resources. Select “Obtain multiple copies of the death certificate” on the checklist, and Lantern explains why you need copies and how to obtain them. Click the “Explore green funeral options” task, and a brief question-and-answer form pops up suggesting ways to incorporate eco-friendly services.

Lantern is just one player in the small but growing after-loss tech space, where companies offer solutions for the financial, logistical, legal, and emotional aftermath of death.

Before there were apps for navigating loss, there were death doulas. Despite its etymological connection to the ancient practice of assisting with childbirth, the death doula movement is relatively new. But the beginning and end of life usher in significant changes and emotions, and with them, a flood of logistical tasks. Alua Arthur, a Los Angeles-based death doula and founder of the organization Going with Grace, saw the isolation of grief and set out to better support people in three ways: helping healthy people become more death literate and complete comprehensive end-of-life plans, helping dying individuals gain control over their own passing, and helping family members wrap up the affairs of their loved one’s life.

“I don’t know of any fully effective app or technology that takes away this burden,” Arthur says, “because so much of it is bureaucratic and requires people to send in forms. This is still an analog world.”

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Even tech companies like Netflix and PayPal require manual effort and often pages of documentation if the bereaved do not have access to the deceased’s login information. But Empathy, another after-loss software company, wants to change that. A premium feature leverages what technology is good at—financials and prefilling forms—to automate closing the deceased’s accounts. Empathy cofounder Ron Gura says, “We take what’s complex for people and easy for machines, and make it as simple and accessible as possible.” The company hopes to reduce the more than 26 hours a month that 46 percent of families spend on the phone wrapping up a relative’s affairs.

Achieving this goal can involve, as Arthur explains, a combination of technology and personal support. “You have an app or website you can use, but there’s somebody on the phone who can also answer your questions or guide you through.”

After-loss technology providers have integrated some one-on-one support into many services. But an easy-to-navigate user experience centered around informative, clear checklists is the most helpful support a digital platform can provide. Each “to-do” and “how-to” list relieves mental energy, but more importantly, they are all organized by time. Grouping tasks by “Address these first” or “To do in Week Three” visually counters the biggest misconception for people grieving: that everything related to the deceased—their family, belongings, finances, and estate—must be handled as quickly as possible.

“They should take their time,” Arthur says of people who are mourning. “Those accounts are still going to be there. Don’t rush.”

Sheri Kay, a death doula in Asheville, North Carolina, seeks to alleviate her clients’ expectations that they need to move fast. “You can rest into it without the sense of urgency for something to be over and the next step to happen,” she says. “We bring a sense of, hopefully, some essence of control to an uncontrollable situation.”

That space allows families to have more agency in responding to death. They might have time to speak with a death doula in the community, who often connect with mourners by word-of-mouth. They may remember a partnership between their bank and an after-loss app and learn how to plan a graveside service instead of a traditional burial.

Making time for decisions that feel true to the person who died and their loved ones is a way to honor each person's loss, since every experience is unique. “People say quite often, ‘grief is grief is grief,’” says Melissa Seligman, another death doula from Asheville. “But if we’re not looking at the independent stories of each person’s grief, then we’re not understanding each person’s situation.”

Many who work in the death care industry, from doulas to tech company founders, emphasize the importance of end-of-life planning. The logistical burden after someone dies can be lightened by thorough advance preparation, like keeping track of account information, having updated wills, and talking with trusted individuals about funeral wishes. But Seligman recognizes that such a smooth transition is not the reality for many. She specializes in traumatic loss, such as accidents or suicides, like my father’s. The Covid-19 pandemic showed that even the most careful end-of-life plans can be upended and result in traumatic loss and, consequently, traumatic grief.

When you walk into a traumatic loss, Seligman says, “you’re not really working with that person’s grief yet, you’re working with their shock. You could walk in and say ‘What do you need me to do? They might look at you like you’re crazy, like, ‘Do you think I have a clue what I need right now?’”

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When we don’t have a clue, we tend to Google. But the burden of knowing which paperwork, payments, and words of support are needed should not fall entirely on grieving family and friends. Alua Arthur dreams of a world in which every workplace, school, and community has at least one person who has been through a death literacy training program and can offer support.

That person might be a doula making tea and calling funeral homes for you. It may look like a clearly organized platform that lets you check off one task at a time over the 13 months it typically takes to wrap up a loved one’s affairs. Or it may combine both with the community kin-care many people turn to, the aunt who writes beautiful obituaries and the brother who speaks legalese.

“Making technology sacred feels relatively new,” says Seligman. “But if you can get into that headspace of making it sacred, it’s a really valuable resource.”

It’s a growing resource, too. As online services like Lantern and Empathy expand among more “death-positive” young people, everyone may have access to their own version of support. Software offers time and assistance with the logistics so each mourner is empowered to make more intentional choices. But it can only go so far.

“With tech, we have this desire to say we don’t need humans anymore. This can fully be solved by software,” Liz Eddy says. “The reality is, the combination of technology and humans is where you really find power.”

With a blend of digital and personal support, what to do when someone dies can move beyond a checklist that demystifies the immediate rush of tasks. It can offer something vital to people facing one of life’s most painful inevitables—a choice.


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