A will among the young to write a will

Lantern co-founders Alyssa Ruderman (left) and Liz Eddy. The company, which calls itself "the single source of guidance for navigating life before and after a death", has seen a 123 per cent rise in users, most of them under 45.
Lantern co-founders Alyssa Ruderman (left) and Liz Eddy. The company, which calls itself "the single source of guidance for navigating life before and after a death", has seen a 123 per cent rise in users, most of them under 45.PHOTO: NYTIMES

One day in April, as the coronavirus ravaged New York City, 24-year-old Isabelle Rodriguez composed a tweet she would send from the grave.

She wasn't dying. She wasn't even sick. In fact, her risk of contracting Covid-19 had been reduced after she was furloughed from her job at a Manhattan bookseller and she had retreated to her rural hometown in Florida.

She conceded that it might seem a little weird to be considering all of this in her mid-20s. But then, young people around the world were getting incredibly sick, incredibly fast.

End-of-life decisions can be overwhelming, but making those choices when she was healthy gave her more control. Knowing that she'd ease the burden on her family if the worst happened also gave her peace of mind. "It would be easier for people around me to know what I want," she said.

Before the pandemic, end-of-life start-ups such as Cake - firms that help clients plan funerals, dispose of remains and process grief - had seen steady to moderate growth. Their founders were mostly women who hoped a mix of technology, customisation and fresh thinking could take on the fusty and predominantly male funeral and estate-planning industries.

Still, selling death to people in their 20s and 30s wasn't easy. Cake's team sometimes had e-mails from young adults, wondering if the site wasn't a tad morbid. Since Covid-19, this has changed.

Millennials are newly anxious about their mortality, increasingly comfortable talking about it and more likely to be grieving or know someone who is.

"The stigma and taboos around talking about death have been way reduced," Cake's co-founder Suelin Chen, 38, said. This has driven conversation across social media, spurred interest in deathfluencers and led to an increase in traffic to end-of-life platforms.

From February to June, people signed up with Cake at five times the normal rate.

Another new company, Lantern, which calls itself "the single source of guidance for navigating life before and after a death", saw a 123 per cent increase in users, most of them under 45.

Lantern's tone is soothing and earnest, but not everyone takes that tack. Cake skews towards the playful. It features a tombstone generator and suggestions like "Viking funeral" and "shoot my ashes into outer space".

 
 

New Narrative, an event-planning company dealing with funerals and memorials, introduces itself with a wink: "We're not your grandma's funeral (... unless it's your grandma's funeral)."

It's a tricky opportunity for these start-ups to navigate. "When you have a brand that's directly interfacing with people in the throes of loss and grief, you have to walk a fine line," said Lantern's co-founder and chief executive Liz Eddy, 30.

All these founders emphasise that they're not trying to capitalise on the coronavirus.

The companies have created new forums and content on how to plan for death, honour the newly dead and grieve virtually. They have initiatives with major healthcare providers to disseminate their products more widely and formed new partnerships with influencers.

The start-ups have even begun to coordinate with one another, sharing tips in a cross-company Slack channel called "Death & Co". They are all hoping the pandemic will be the event that turns end-of-life planning - from designing a funeral to writing a will and final tweet - into a common part of adulthood.

In 2012, a friend invited Ms Chen and her fiance to dinner and suggested they play an unusual party game: Write and share their own obituaries. "It'll be fun!" the friend said. "They do it at Stanford Business School." At first, Ms Chen was delighted by the exercise: Both she and her fiance wrote, in the imagined past tense, about a music album they hoped to one day record. But when Ms Chen started reading what she had written about her career, she was seized with panic and started bawling at the table.

Ms Chen had also recently lost her grandfather, who died at 95 after a long period of suffering. He lived in Taiwan, where death in very old age is treated as a celebration, Ms Chen said. And yet there had been a lot of family conflict around the experience.

A few years later she met Dr Mark Zhang, a palliative care physician and technologist, at an MIT health care "hackathon". The pair won first place at the event and went on to found Cake. The platform now includes resources and templates to help users write their obituaries along with guidance for how to get them published.

The venture-backed firm makes money through partnerships and will eventually add fee-based services. The pandemic has been an especially busy time for it. Cake's services, for example, soon will be integrated into the website of the British bank RBS/NatWest.

Cake has also teamed up with Providence Health System, a network of 51 hospitals and 1,000 clinics in seven states across the US, to share its document specifying an individual's medical preferences if the person becomes incapacitated. Through Cake, individuals could submit the form to their doctor without needing a notary and two non-family witnesses, which are often required but difficult to get under quarantine.

The next step is offering premium services, tailored to different types of users.

THE PANDEMIC HITS

During the ongoing pandemic, condolence-related traffic on Cake doubled. To address the need, the company started a forum where users can crowdsource their questions and concerns.

Lantern provides its own grief and condolence content, including a "pandemic-proof" guide to "inclusively addressing grief at work".

"Especially during Covid-19, it's how can you incorporate the grieving process into 9-to-5 and day-to-day work?" said Ms Alica Forneret, 31, who runs grief workshops and just started a namesake consulting agency to help companies address this question.

For Ms Forneret and other such millennial founders, preparing for death and navigating grief during the pandemic has become a form of self-care.

"We've been called a niche market," she said. "But death and dying is possibly the least niche market out there." Corporations are rethinking the wellness programmes they're offering employees, her co-founder, Ms Eddy, said.

Studies have found that being able to talk about your mortality makes you a happier person and improves your relationships. The thinking, for employers perhaps, is that access to end-of-life services can make people happier and more productive at work.

The basic pre-planning services at Cake and Lantern are free. Given that the average cost of a funeral in the US last year was US$7,640 (S$10,600), this kind of foresight could reduce the cost of dying.

"We're never going back to the way it was," Ms Chen said. "That's a positive thing - to accept the reality that we're not immortal."

NYTIMES

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2020, with the headline 'A will among the young to write a will'. Print Edition | Subscribe