When Brad Wolfe was at Stanford in the early aughts, one of his best friends, Sara LaBoskey, was diagnosed with a pediatric bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. Wolfe played guitar, so he wrote a song to celebrate her, and began singing at the hospital. “People talk about the power of art. But I realized it was more than just a phrase when I saw the kind of impact that it had in connecting with Sara, and how it had some small impact on her well-being,” he says.
The artistic expression helped them both because it became a positive way to honor LaBoskey while she was still living, and to remember her after she passed. Nearly 15 years later, Wolfe is trying to take that concept mainstream, as the founder and executive director of Reimagine End of Life, a nonprofit that hosts weeklong community festivals with events, workshops, and performances meant to generate more conversation and connection around the generally taboo topic of death.
Wolfe, who eventually earned a masters in sociology, and then an MBA from Berkeley, launched the first festival in 2016. The idea took shape after OpenIDEO ran its End of Life Challenge, a public contest that took place that same year and sought new ways to re-humanize the dying process. Wolfe was inspired by the concept, and collaborated with OpenIDEO on a separate effort the explored the relationship between art and the end of life.
While death was once considered a personal, at-home, and inclusive family experience, Americans began outsourcing their family and community responsibilities to hospitals or nursing homes in the 1950s. As OpenIDEO’s original contest material notes, about 2.5 million people die each year in the U.S., with less than one-fifth in the privacy of their own home. The process of dying now has become largely institutionalized.
The festival’s second year starts April 16 in San Francisco. More than 7,000 people are expected to attend more than 175 events, with subsequent stops scheduled for Cleveland and New York later this year.
The event offers both philosophical and practical advice. Reimagine has partnered with San Francisco’s Department of Aging and Adult Servicesand the city’s Palliative Care Workgroup, to offer free advanced care planning sessions at 25 locations around the city. That includes helping people set up their own end-of-life health directives.
Extract from "This Festival Wants Us To Rethink How We Die" @fastcompany by Ben Paynter