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In our contemporary culture that is so focused on pleasure, death and mourning have been relegated from the public space. Can design be helpful in understanding and coping with the passing of a loved one? Katarzyna Andrzejczyk-Briks, art historian and lecturer at SWPS University’s School of Form shares her thoughts on the links between design and the end of life.

Death and mourning - a taboo subject?

There is a tradition that seems to be fading away from our lives. We no longer know how to talk about death. Various elements of funeral ceremonies keep disappearing from the ritual of saying good bye to those who have passed away. People no longer keep a vigil by the body at home. Funerals are short. Not everyone wears the traditional mourning black and people tend to pray less.

Death and mourning have become taboo subjects, invisible and awkward. Perhaps, we do not know how to accompany the dead in the ritual of transition between life and death, because we believe that there is nothing there, where they are going. At the same time, when a loved one passes away, the significance of the ritual hits us with the full force. When you are arranging a funeral, everything must have a meaning and be in order. “She love these flowers”, “she listened to this music all the time”, “this is where he wanted to be buried”. We strive to fulfil the last wishes of the departed, reminisce on their lives, and fondly remember the words of wisdom they left us. At a time like this, it is important to have a ritual and a tradition that you may follow to make sense of your loss and to seek support.

Death and mourning have become taboo subjects, invisible and awkward. Perhaps, we do not know how to accompany the dead in the ritual of transition between life and death, because we believe that there is nothing there, where they are going.

However, some people see the traditional rituals as something imposed on, devoid of meaning and they seek a different and a more personal way of coping with death.

Can a ritual be designed?

Do design and death have anything in common? I asked myself this questions, when I had to arrange my mother’s funeral and I could not find a simply designed casket, headstone or cemetery lanterns. Why do designers avoid this sphere of life? Is it too difficult? Non-marketable?

While I was searching, I discovered Nurn urns designed by Mortis Design studio. The biodegradable urns resemble a conch, a pod or a womb. They are simple, minimalistic and can be custom-tinted to suit individual needs. The name of the product has been inspired by Slavic mythology. In the package, the company also offers a secular funeral ceremony that takes place at sea, because the Polish law allows for this type of a final farewell. According to the designers, the urn and the ceremony meet the needs of the new nomadic lifestyle of contemporary humans and the need for a new ritual.

I like the urn. I also like the vison of a burial at sea, but I wonder whether this type of a ritual can be designed. After all it is not a product. It has been shaped by time, religion and culture. In our contemporary culture, so focused on pleasure and hedonism, death and mourning have been relegated from the public space. Can design be helpful in understanding and coping with the passing of a loved one?

Will the amalgamation of a beautiful, but archaic Slavic mythology, ancient symbols, ecology, the revival of arts and crafts and local materials – issues that are important to contemporary design – create a ceremony that could become meaningful and powerful for people?

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Photos: press materials | Project – Mortis Design | Nurn Urn

Grieving Space

I like the design of a secular cemetery proposed by Eun-Hae Kwon who graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands. The “Gates of Mourning” project has been inspired by the designer’s personal experience, which helped her to realize that death and mourning have been relegated from the public space by our culture which is focused on life and pleasure.

In the increasingly secularized Europe, there is no room for dealing with emotions related to death and dying. Even in Catholic Poland, people are not expected to express all feelings that they are going through, during this difficult time. When my friend, who lost a young son, took some balloons to the cemetery to celebrate his birthday, she turned many heads and provoked comments, such as: “She could’ve done it at home...”

The “Gates of Mourning” project is an attempt to make the feelings and ways of coping with grief visible and tangible, instead of relegating them to the private sphere. It is a place where one can mourn the death of a loved one while moving towards a new phase of life. Each of the gates corresponds to the five stages of grief, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, described by Swiss-American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The gates do not symbolize these phases, but rather offer a space that helps to feel and understand one’s emotions and helps to cope with these feelings.

The “Anger Gate” is a spiral tower, which prohibits entry. In that sense it is not a real gate, but rather a structure that leads to nowhere. However, it provides an opportunity to “walk off” one’s anger. The closed space of the “Depression Gate” isolates you from the world, however thanks to the solitude it provides, it allows you to cry away your grief and sadness in private.

In the center of this space, the designer has placed a green garden. So that you can smell the earth and flowers and you can feel the wind on your face. You can see how nature dies and is reborn in the infinite cycle of life. The “Acceptance Gate” is a space where you can get some water to water the plants you have planted at the grave of your loved one. You cherish the plants and you cherish the memory of those that passed away and you remember that we all are a part of the same universe.

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brama 5
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Photos: press materials | Designer – Eun-Hae Kwon | "Gates of Mourning"

Anthropologist Alfonso Maria di Nola describes mourning as “a system of rituals that allows us to triumph over death and regain peace and the joy of life.” Obviously, a ritual may be helpful at the time of mourning, but it will not replace the personal process of grieving and the ways of coping with one’s own pain. My personal discovery on this journey was rather paradoxical. When facing death, I felt intensely alive.

 

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The article was first published in the Polish edition of Stary Browar BR& magazine (issue 36).

About the Author

258 katarzyna briks

Katarzyna Andrzejczyk-Briks – art historian who is passionate about design and architecture. Co-owner of architecture design studio, Briks Architekci. She lectures in art history and interior design at SWPS University’s School of Form. She also teaches design trends and history of design at Interior Design professional certification and training program at SWPS University. She collaborates with furniture brands such as Balma and Noti and Dekoma, a fabric design company.