The first post in our collaboration with New Architecture Writers, a programme that supports emerging Black and minority ethnic writers in design journalism, finds Lois Innes unpicking changed attitudes towards the design of death.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve been introduced to ‘new normals’: white-collar workforces have retreated from city offices; two-m rules apply to every public space; virtual worlds have all but replaced the physical. But the funeral home industry – and certain communities tasked with disposing of the deceased – have had a much harder time adapting. This is not least due to the austere restrictions surrounding burial processes to protect public health, but also to our seemingly immutable attitudes to funerary rituals. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the closet world of traditional funeral parlours. Dimly lit through drab, curtain-lined windows over shopfronts resembling miniature mausoleums, they lead a curiously out-of-sync life, scattered on high streets like ghostly remnants of a Victorian past. To deal in the rather grim business of death, grieving relatives are greeted into interior time warps, replete with floral wallpaper, ‘olde-worlde’ furniture and complementary offerings of tea. It’s as though the comforting air of stability and convention is somehow able to alleviate the distress of death (or its exorbitant costs).  

But tradition breeds staleness. While coronavirus has stripped us of the theatrics, etiquettes and rituals, it has likewise shown us how attenuated those values have become. The accelerated undressing of tradition has ultimately laid bare the essential elements of mourning – less spectacle, more physical and emotional connection. Under COVID, funeral directors will not be able to respond to these changing sensibilities immediately. Yet it’s difficult to imagine such taboo-breaking conversations taking place just over a year ago.  

Already ahead of this thinking is Exit Here, a contemporary undertaker’s service launched in 2019 by British restauranteur Oliver Peyton. In collaboration with Transit Studio, the modern parlour aims to transform the solemn, outdated tastes of Victorian funerary practices. Based in the trendy enclaves of West London, few could distinguish its appearance from neighbouring upmarket boutiques and hipster cafes. The dour frontages of traditional parlours – with their cluttered, serif signage and dark wood panelling – are here overturned by the use of dazzlingly white render, primary blue accents and a neon-backlit logo. 

Internally, all traces of black are eschewed in favour of more calming hues in teal and Tuscan yellow. Sculptural archways and sweeping curvilinear floor layouts give a greater sense of accessibility, and there’s a carefully balanced selection of furnishings that make guests feel not too far from home. The parlour also extends its services into an eclectic catalogue of burial paraphernalia. Included is a kitschy, hand-painted Día de los Muertos-inspired casket, which refreshingly commemorates death in celebration, breaking down also the Western-centric cultural focus on mourning rituals.   

While Exit Here offers a glimpse into the types of funerary spaces and services we might hope to see in an eventual return to the real world, the virtual world is setting in motion a more personal and open dialogue around death and burial customs. Heartfelt obituaries fill social media, reaching audiences far wider than the restricted congregations of COVID funerals; Death Cafe, a social franchise discussing mortality, has reported a surge in online membership; and trends for direct cremation are on the rise, which separate the basic formalities of body disposal with the freedom for relatives to arrange their own personalized send-offs.

The 2020 pandemic – as abrupt and callous as it has been – is restoring the ways in which we conceptualize and memorialize death to reflect our own, modern sensibilities. Like many things predicted post-COVID, high street funeral parlours will not be the same, but with any hope, they might begin to look a bit more, well, normal.

New Architecture Writers is a free programme for emerging design writers, developing the journalistic skill, editorial connections and critical voice of its participants. N.A.W. focuses on Black and minority ethnic emerging writers who are underrepresented across design journalism and curation. A series of evening workshops, talks, and writing briefs form the core of N.A.W.’s programme with one-to-one mentoring from experienced design critics and editors throughout. Find out more here.