There are a few things we don't talk about in public: death, sex, and religion. Meet Emily, who wants to help you overcome your fear of the former.
I don’t have my end-of-life paperwork filled out, and I’m not alone: approximately 70% of Americans have no plans in place for when we die. For most of us, the conversation is more awkward than the paperwork itself. It’s difficult to sit down and set aside time to plan an event that feels so hypothetical, even if it’s actually not. Enter Emily.
Released over the summer by the start-up LifeFolder, Emily is a Messenger chatbot that wants to normalize talking about death. Over the course of approximately 45 minutes (though sessions can be shorter or longer, depending on how in-depth you want your conversation to be), Emily helps you complete your end-of-life paperwork, including an organ donation statement, assigning a health proxy (which names the person you’d like to make decisions for you if you’re too sick to make them yourself), and an advance directive (also known as a living will, which contains instructions regarding your end-of-life health care treatment).
The documents Emily walks you through are basically what you’d be filling out if you just downloaded the forms online (and if you’d rather do that, you can find your state-specific paperwork here). Her messages are sent chat-style, with each thought a separate message and line.
When I launch my chat, she greets me with the following:
Emily’s tone is casual and conversational. Because she uses the Facebook Messenger platform, our death talk lives between movie plans with friends and awkward exchanges with former classmates. As I chat, I’m interrupted by my fiance sending me a funny pet video from Twitter and friends complaining about the hideous colors of autumn lipstick.
For this reason, Emily doesn’t sound like your standard customer service bot trying to get you through some weird marketing funnel to sell you trousers. Talking to her is like talking to that AIM friend you had in high school, who listened to all your late-night musings and gently coaxes your feelings out of you.
“We wanted Emily to have a pretty strong personality,” Haje Jan Kamps, the CEO and co-founder of LifeFolder, Emily’s parent company, tells me. For this reason, she offers asides — like fun facts about your home state when you specify where you live, or jokes about Dr. Gregory House — and checks in on you throughout the conversation. There’s even a way to make her messages come faster or slower, just like talking to a real person. Honestly, it’s effective: I feel like I’m talking to a freakishly patient nurse.
Not everyone is a fan of Emily’s tone. According to Kamps, early feedback — the bot launched over the summer — was that Emily’s tone was far too informal considering the subject matter. But that sort of misses the point of the app, he says.
“It appears that a lot of people are keen to put death on a ‘pedestal,’” Kamps says. “Some of our users would prefer to talk about death in the same way they would talk to a judge: ‘Yes, your honour, no, your grace.’ The truth is obvious: People don't talk to each other like that, and if we want to normalize talking about death, we have to think about how we do that.”
One thing to keep in mind is that the documents you go over with Emily are only legally binding in 15 states, as every state requires different end-of-life paperwork. When the bot launched in late June, the documentation was only supported in California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois, but LifeFolder hopes to finish the roll-out to remaining states within several months.
It’s also worth noting that Emily is primarily targeted at healthy millennials who avoid the hell out of end-of-life planning because they view death as a far-off event. For this reason, it occurs to me that Emily might not be equipped to address those dealing with suicidal ideation or impending death in a more urgent scenario (for instance, if a user has been diagnosed with a terminal illness).
But for most of us healthy millennials, who are likely averse to talking about death, Emily could be just what the doctor ordered. Walking through end-of-life options for the first time might not be something you’re up for doing by yourself, so it helps to get a little guidance throughout the process. It’s sort of like filling out a dating profile: you’re not quite sure what you want to say, but you know getting started is the hard part.
After I’m finished, Emily emails me a personalized discussion guide. It’s basically a summary of the conversation I had with Emily, but structured in a way to help facilitate conversations with friends and family members, as a way to encourage them to start talking about their own end-of-life wishes. With this in hand, I feel like I’m now officially my social group’s go-to Death Person. But ultimately, the paperwork is likely not what you’re truly here for. Emily is an opportunity to practice thinking about the implications of your own death in front of someone who won’t judge you or derail you with their own opinions.
My full conversation with Emily lasts about 45 minutes. I had Netflix on in the background in case things got boring, but the fact that it wasn’t a simple yes/no chat means that they didn’t. Kamps says the length of the conversation doesn’t seem to be an issue for users. “People are more than happy to settle in and have an in-depth conversation,” he says. Maybe because we’ve we’ve avoided the issue for so long, once we start talking, we find we have so much to say.