After 17 years working for IBM, Brant Huddleston left the corporate world and became an entrepreneur. He’s recently started the Dance to Death Afterlife podcast to learn, with his listeners, about death and dying in an upbeat and educational way. You can follow the podcast on Twitter: @D2DAfterlife or Facebook.
Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday….and all is well.
The last time I saw my brother was on a boat in the middle of the Severn River near Annapolis, Maryland. It was summer, and the family had gathered to spread his ashes. John died in April 1992 at age 39, just three weeks after the death of my father. It was a hard year.
It was then I began thinking more deeply about death, and as a bona fide geek, how technology might enhance ways to tell the stories of the dead. My father’s life—64 years of adventure, living overseas, fighting wars, and raising six children—was reduced on his burial plaque to the infamous hyphen found between date of birth and death. My brother’s life is even less memorialized, as there is no marker to him of any kind, and rarely a mention on his birthday or death day. Maybe it is just too much for us to bear, especially my nearly 90 year old mother, who grieves his loss more than the rest of us combined. We are, as are so many others, practicing our own form of death denial. So as the Severn River swallowed up the last of my brother’s physical presence, an idea was born.
As a geek, I imagined using technology to create something I called a talking headstone, which would use multimedia to tell the stories of the dead. The living could point at a ”memorial,” which might be in the middle of a river, and ask, “Who’s there?” Then, a short audio/visual presentation would play, conveying the dead person’s stories and a celebration of his or her life. The talking headstone would expand the hyphen and make it come alive! But in 1992, the technology to make such a headstone did not exist, so I put the idea away for nearly two decades.
Years later, when I finally began shopping my idea among funeral directors, I learned something about their culture: many whom I encountered were staunchly resistant to change and hostile to new ideas. I immediately recognized the culture, for I worked for IBM at a time when they too stubbornly fought inevitable agents of change, like the personal computer, with such ferocity that the company nearly collapsed. This tendency for a mainstream industry to resist changes evoked by disruptive, new ideas is brilliantly described in the book The Innovator’s Dilemma by Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen.
From Christensen’s book and my personal experience with IBM, I knew the mainstream funeral services industry, with its legacy of digging holes and carving in stone, would never accept my high-tech invention. The future of the talking headstone lay elsewhere, with the rogues, the rebels, the dreamers, and those willing to challenge the entrenched paradigms of modern death practices. They’re the ones who, as the Japanese wisely advise, “ask why five times,” and they are among the very people I now seek as guests for my new Dance to Death Afterlife podcast.
The fear of death, and the subsequent denial of death, is pervasive in the United States, and it is unhealthy. Together we have an opportunity to change that, and if we follow the irrevocable pattern Professor Christensen traces back to the beginning of human history, that change will come from outside the mainstream. It starts with a vision. I believe by taking an unflinching look at death—a natural and unavoidable process—we’re better able to accept it, plan for a beautiful one, and most importantly, embrace every precious moment of life as a miraculous gift to be savored and cherished.
Others smarter and more talented than I have gone on to build the talking headstone, and I’m excited for them. My purpose now, as creator and host of the podcast, is to shine a light on their accomplishments (and all other facets of death, including those from the mainstream) so that together we can change our world a bit for the better, overcome our fears, and enjoy a fuller, more abundant life…for as long as it lasts. I want my listeners to be well informed and in control of their own experiences, as much as they can be. For if we don’t design our lives, and our encounters with death, then someone else will design those experiences for us, and it may not be what we truly want.
Did my brother John even want to be cremated? I don’t know. No one ever asked him.
Editor’s note: catch Melissa’s interview with Brant on his Dance to Death Afterlife podcast!
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