Everyone dies eventually. So why is our culture generally avoidant about the topic of death?
It’s obviously not fun to think about the end of life, especially when discussing it with people close to you. According to this 2018 study, almost half of surveyed people aged 40-64 didn’t feel comfortable discussing death with their parents, with a third actually preferring to discuss their weight over the prospect of death.
People generally find death and dying difficult to speak about because it can be awkward, sad and, well, frightening. But death doesn’t have to be scary or weird to talk about, according to Near Co-Founders Christy Knutson and Jane Butler.
Created from all-too-familiar experiences with providing care for dying family and friends, Near is a Raleigh- and New York-based online services platform dedicated to uplifting care providers and providing resources focused on end of life (EOL). Their mission is to make EOL care and experiences easier and accessible for not only the dying person, but also the caregiver and close family/friends.
“I noticed that [life and grief companies] are one of the most neglected industries, partially because nobody wants to talk about [death],” Butler said. “But it can also be devastating, hard and difficult overall, even if you don’t want to talk about it. I thought there should be more of a platform to modernize it and help it be a little more applicable.”
The two founders met when Butler began working as a creative designer for Well Refined, a creative marketing agency serving nonprofits and startups that the Raleigh-based Knutson co-founded in 2011. While they were working with some EOL clients, they recognized gaps in care that occurred from the initial point of diagnosis to after death, according to Knutson. With her background in working with EOL organizations and Butler’s in creative web design, their passions aligned and led to conversations to create a modernized, easy-to-use platform for EOL resources.
At the time, Butler’s fiance (now husband) was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which she said was a wake-up call to the fragility of life. Knutson’s familiarity with EOL dates back to when she was 10 years old, taking care of her grandmother with Alzheimer’s. After experiencing her grandmother’s passing and then living through more significant losses—such as the loss of her cousin, whom she considered a sister—Knutson dedicated her work to ensuring ease, comfort, help and validation for people going through these difficult times.
“There are some losses you never get over and [my cousin] was that for me,” Knutson said. “She’s very much in my work, she’s a part of what I do. [Jane and I] were acutely aware of and exposed to all of the holes in support for both the person who’s ill and for their loved ones. And those experiences are really the driving force behind everything we’re doing with Near.”
What Near provides
Near is centered around three components: caring, connecting and celebrating.
The “care” aspect is complemented with a personalized care registry. Similar to a wedding or baby registry, users can register gifts and experiences that will help provide comfort and reassurance while they’re going through either the caretaking process or their own EOL. The startup just released its Holiday Gift Guide, which provides tangible and practical care to people experiencing hurt during the holiday season.
Through the care registry, not only can users ask for gifts, but they can also link to personal fundraising pages and delivery services, list close family members’ information and their specific needs and add care requests—like moving boxes or picking up kids from school—because no one wants to deal with all of that when they have to take care of a dying loved one.
The “connecting” aspect of Near offers a range of different services the user might need during an EOL process. They include meal support, legal services, EOL planning, funeral and memorial planning and more—all to ensure that no one should be alone through these difficult journeys.
Finally, Near’s “celebrating” component could redefine death as another milestone in a person’s life. It almost sounds like an oxymoron when you are looking to celebrate death, but why does the end of a life have to feel and look negative? Currently in development, Near plans to uplift and offer legacy and funeral/memorial planning services, which include but aren’t limited to personalized funeral programs and curated legacy memorabilia.
“When it comes to designing funerals, they’re often not designed with the same level of attention to detail and personalization that reflects the person who has died,” Knutson said. “We believe that there’s a real opportunity to actually celebrate the person who’s died in a way that aligns with their interest, their values, their aesthetics.”
They also hope to uplift and eventually provide resources on “living funerals,” which is the idea of having a celebration of life before an individual passes away. These provide an opportunity for the dying person to benefit from having the people that they love all together in one room and providing them with a real form of connection before they pass.
“A wedding pulls everyone you love together in one room and that does not happen again until you die,” Knutson said. “And you won’t be here to experience it. What an unnecessary miss.”
Near not only organizes services into one hub for the user, but they also find resources and providers through official communities and organizations who are dedicated to EOL care above all, so the user doesn’t have to scour through potentially unhelpful sources.
“We want [Near] to be the centralized place where you can be proactive in caring or celebrating the life of somebody else,” Butler said. “I want people to have more clarity during their difficult times—something I wish I had more of—or at least have the awareness of that.”
For Butler and Knutson, they hope that a service like Near can bring ease and comfort to a difficult time. They want people to know that they’re not alone in experiences of serious illness, end of life, loss and grief, and that there are services and tools to help bring the community together and help communicate needs and desires. They understand that because of our death-avoidant culture, it can be hard to break out of that shell.
“It’s hard for us to name out loud to the people we love what’s most important to us,” Knutson said. “Someone at the end of their life will feel isolated and lonely because they are having feelings about their mortality, but it’s difficult to talk about that with the people who are closest to them, because they don’t want to cause them any extra pain.”
She continues: “And it’s such a tender, sensitive time. We really want to surround people at this time of their lives and help them feel that sense of community and care. Even as a death-avoidant culture, we are seeing changes taking place. Over time, the more comfortable we can get talking about our own mortality and the end of life experiences with those we love, the more awareness and support there will be that is necessary.”