The fire shall ever be burning upon thine altar
- Leviticus 6:13
Passing on the brief
It was a grey, early morning of a parisian January. I was part of a small team of designers and engineers from ESAAMA and the École des Arts et Métiers in Paris. The heads of Product development at OGF met with us to present us with a challenge they faced. To keep up with their changing market and evolving customer segments, they were looking to create a new product to broaden their catalogue with a low-cost offer.
OGF is France's leading coffin-maker.
The question: How might we encourage grieving families to chose OGF's burial products and services rather than increasingly popular cremation services?
What we learned about grief
Research into western passage rituals allowed us to better understand the role of the burial ceremony and casket as facilitators for the grieving process. The design process led to a sensible, metaphorically and symbolically rich proposition that accompanies families in their grieving process.
Research suggests that, in many cases, cremation actually impairs the grieving process. This is partly explained by a certain paucity of ceremonial practices, visual and emotional representation of the passing, and simply the swiftness of the gesture.
Conversely, our user interviews around the topic of funeral services and caskets taught us that the collective image of the burial context was rather gloomy, austere and filled with a general sense of discomfort - bordering on disgust.
Therefore we set out to design an experience around this unusual object of industrial design with the intention to strengthen meaningful cultural codes surrounding funeral practices and propose new practices to better support the mourning process.
The object itself is at the core of OGF's offer and therefore is the pivotal part of the experience.
Our most obvious design decision is the choice of off-white as the casket's color. While a white casket is unconventional, it breaks from the typical style of traditionally available caskets that are associated to depictions of the macabre side of the funerals.
For materials, white lacquered wood allows the use of low-cost fibreboards or other cost efficient wood boards. This let's us preserve the touch and warmth of wood while enhancing it with a lacker finish and significantly reduce cost of materials and manufacturing.
The superimposed wood cuts on the top can be custom laminated with photographs or used as a casing for keepsakes. These customizable CNC machined boards can also be made to display a custom engraved symbol significant to the family (religious or otherwise). Since the greater part of the casket is standard, with only the custom-made overlay plates varying from one to the next, OGF's catalog can offer a modular, individualized casket design while maintaining a low price point.
Another other major intervention on the casket is the inversion of the proportions of the lid and base. This is to break the perception of an inelegant box-like form. Instead, the base is used as a small altar in the event of an open-casket ceremony and, a bezel in the base gives it a sense weightlessness.
Later in the ceremony, the lid is to be placed on top, borrowing semantically from how a glass dome might protect a flower.
Finally, it is essential to families that the deceased look comfortable and peaceful in their final resting place. To honour this, the inside of the casket can be lined with a range of fabrics and textures ranging from canvas to velvet and even a real flower-bed.
Though it may seem obvious now, it was essential to remind ourselves throughout the project what was at stake.
The overarching purpose of funeral rituals is to support and guide families and friends as they honour the passing of a loved one.
With this in mind there is still much to be done, not only from a product design perspective, but also and most importantly from a service design standpoint. For us and for the industry, we wonder how funeral services might better serve and support people in their grieving process? And perhaps most significantly, what might constitute the full extent of a funeral service in today's technological landscape and in the context of non-religious "modern mourning".
Further reading: IDEO - Redesigning Death