I recently had the privilege of visiting a friend’s 93-year-old mom as she lay dying of natural causes due to a life well lived. Surrounded by her eclectic paintings, pottery, and trinkets from long-ago journeys and dozens of photos depicting a lifetime of smiles and warm hugs, Miss Emily lay sleeping on the home healthcare hospital bed wearing her leopard print silk pajamas lovingly covered by her favorite black and white cotton blanket.

She appeared to be resting peacefully, but only her labored breaths implied the timing of her death only hours away. As I sat with the tall, still graceful woman, I couldn’t help to smile as my eyes began to wander around the room taking in the happy life-filled images and a multitude of fun, quirky stuff representative of her gracious personality and exuberant zest for life. For even though death was moments away she was content to be surrounded by souvenirs of life as she was about to peacefully accept the inevitable. And peace was felt everywhere as the mere existence of these nearby decorative and commemorative items made a palatable difference on those in attendance as well. For in that moment I realized that yes, this is how the spaces in which we die should be designed so that everyone who is aware of their advancing demise can add their own signature touch. Too bad this is not how it works.

It seems that we as A&D professionals talk a good game of the important role the built environment plays on the emotional and psychological bearing of anyone who enters the spaces we provide, but when it comes to the process of dying we seem to forget the importance of providing adequate space for the stuff, trinkets and mementos, of a life worth savoring. Even with the vast numbers of archeological burial sites that represent the innate need to surround oneself in death with family and friends, trinkets, and depictive reminders of who the person is, we in the modern healthcare and hospice industries still don’t “get” how to design a space worthy of dying in. Instead of a one-size-fits-all “passing room,” I suggest we start to actively consider the process and ritual of dying in our programming efforts. We can then design those spaces for the terminally ill to be a place that will accommodate family members as well as ample display spaces for items that aid remembrance and celebration of life. Who knows, maybe the way in which Miss Emily passed will serve as inspiration and make a difference in the way we practice end of life design. Much like her life made a difference in mine.