The Art of Dying: San Francisco’s Death Week

The San Francisco Bay Area has redefined everything from technology to sex and spirituality.

Now it’s death’s turn.

Starting Oct. 24 and continuing through Halloween, San Francisco hosts Re:Imagine | End of Life — more colloquially known as “Death Week” — a weeklong exploration and celebration of the dying process.


“Reminding myself of my own mortality allows me to live more fully,” says Brad Wolfe, a creative producer for OpenIDEO — the global community solutions arm for legendary design firm IDEO, with offices in San Francisco and Palo Alto — who serves as the event’s coordinator. “There’s so much beauty at the end.”

OpenIdeo sponsors global conversations on topics as diverse as women’s safety, clean water, urban slums, the Zika virus, even financial services for adults over 50. Its goal is to foster a dialogue that will lead to new approaches and solutions.

Re:Imagine arrives in the wake of a similar end-of-life challenge and serves as a real world conversation that Wolfe hopes will spur an intimate exploration of death through a very different lens than the world of health care.

“What is the role of design, art and storytelling in this space?” asks Wolfe. “That’s the thread we’re bringing that’s unique.”

The week features a series of intriguing and eclectic programs: end-of-life tales by physicians, death dinners, art, music, even comedy.

It features speakers like BJ Miller, the creator of San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project, whose TED Talk What really matters at end of life has been seen by over four million people, and Ira Byock, a palliative care physician and author of the 1997 book “Dying Well” who recently penned the New York Times article At the End of Life, What Do Doctors Do?

Events include Memento Mori (the Roman phrase for “Remember Your Mortality”) and “Mortified” – humorous tales surrounding death.

Wolfe’s own life has been profoundly shaped by death. Two of his grandparents were survivors of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, so death became part of his family’s fabric “even before I could walk.”

While a student at Stanford, he lost his friend Sara to pediatric cancer, spawning Wolfe’s song “Sara’s Got a Sunbeam,” a musical career, and The Sunbeam Foundation, which supports research for pediatric bone cancer and other underfunded forms of cancer.

Re:Imagine has been organized largely in the past three months as Wolfe and colleagues sent out a citywide call for submissions.

“We’re not producing any of these events ourselves,” says Wolfe. “It shows the power of this topic.”

One of Ideo’s simplest yet most elegant design inventions was putting mirrors on hospital gurneys so patients could make eye contact with the doctors and nurses speeding them through hallways.

Is the Re:Imagine week OpenIdeo’s way of making eye contact with death?

“I think that’s a beautiful way to say it,” says Wolfe. “It’s about bringing death into the light.”

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