The thanatorium is a speculative service for assisted suicide in Soylent Green. Suicide and death are not easy topics and I will do my best to address them seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.
There are four experiences to look at in the interface and service design of the Thanatorium: The patient, their beneficiaries, the usher to the beneficiaries, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the attendants to the patient. Forewarning: This is the role we have the least information about. These Thanatorium personnel are there to assist the patient in their suicide, and deal with the body after the ceremony is complete.
The attendants have many goals and tasks to accomplish with each patient:
- Help set the patient at ease so they complete the ceremony
- Welcome the patient warmly
- Assist them with tasks
- Help them disrobe
- Get them onto the gurney
- Provide the hemlock
- Set the patient in place for the cinerama experience
- Press the gray buttons (which I interpret as ensuring medical monitoring, see below)
- Set a liminal mood
- Remove the clothes for donating and cup for cleaning
- Leave the patient during the cinerama
- Return to the body when the patient has passed
- Usher the gurney through the portal
Nearly all of this is manual, with no speculative interfaces to speak of. A service design approach would look at this entire touchpoint, though. So, some quick notes.
Note their uniforms. Rather than the Guayabera shirt that the usher wears, the attendants wear vestments—white robes with goldenrod cuffs and cinctures around their waists. They even wear sandals to convey a sort of biblical, old-world holiness. It’s goofy and cheap, and kind of perfect.
Their manner is solemn, never speaking and performing their tasks with a sort of dance-like deliberateness. The behavior helps set off the space as liminal, somewhere not-quite like the world outside. No notes on the frontstage choreography.
The lighting begins a little flat, like overhead fluorescents in a school cafeteria. Maybe this is to give the patient a sense of certainty, of complete information about the room; but for my money the whole thing would seem more liminal with more dramatic lighting: A warm pool of light around the bed, maybe tiny amber incandescent bulbs flickering in a ring around the walls, like candles or stars.
There are some things we don’t get to see about the ceremony, like where the hemlock is stored and how it is presented to Sol, or how he gets up on a bed that’s above his waist, or what they do with his clothes. Or even—and this bit really bugs me—how the light changes from white to Sol’s requested orange at that moment. It’s not the usher, who is in the foyer about to intercept Thorn, and not the attendants, whose attention is on Sol. Maybe it’s on a timer, but that makes little sense. I really have to chalk it up to another movie-making error. Anyway, we’ll get to all this in the patient’s experience post, next.
For now let’s note that after the patient drinks the hemlock and they ease him back, we finally get to the one interface.
The ominous, inscrutable gray buttons…
Before departing the chamber, one of the attendants reaches down to a small metallic panel at the head of the bed. It consists of two square pushbuttons on the right, and a dial (or a plunger?) on the left.
The attendant presses and holds both of the buttons simultaneously for about three seconds. In the movie this attendant then gives the other a knowing glance, and they depart.
What the hell is this interface meant to be?
It’s quite unclear what state change this interface is meant to make, or why it needs to be a two-handed switch, when these sorts of things are mostly used for safety. My best guess is that since the drinking of the hemlock is the point of no return, and since the observation window is closed during that sequence so grief-stricken beneficiaries can’t interrupt; the two-handed switch is the silent signal from the attendants to the usher that everything is cool and they can open the observation window for final farewells. That’s low-confidence backworlding, though, since in the movie we know the usher is not present in the observation chamber at this time, but in the foyer of the thanatorium about to intercept Thorn. So, take this with a grain of salt.
But, if that’s the usual purpose, why have one panel with the two buttons? It’s a bit silly because they are close enough to be mashed by a single palm or even hip. It would make more sense if each attendant had their own button on each side of the bed, which they had to hold down. Have each button illuminate small green bulbs, and then jump-cut to the usher’s interface where two identical green bulbs labeled READY both illuminate. Then the usher can open the window and the beneficiary interface can switch to SPEAKING PERMITTED. This would make that weird interface moment make at least some sense.
Oh, and the dial? I have no idea. It’s unlabeled. Could be to control the bed height, or audio volume, or the brightness? Why one and not the other? There’s no way to tell and nothing makes a lot of sense given the rest of this scene. Provide your best guess in the comments, if you like. Otherwise my recommendation is to remove it.
One thing that seems to be missing the scene is some acknowledgment that the attendants are the ones to ensure that medical monitoring is operational, and do some troubleshooting if not. The monitoring is important, because the usher will await the clinical death signals before ending the cinerama and opening the observation window again for final viewing by the beneficiaries.
To help signal this, I recommend adding to the scene a quick shot of the surface of the bed before Sol lays down, showing inset silver disks, hinting at something like ECG electrodes, and then adding a panel at the head of the bed that an attendant can pull out to reveal the clinical death gauges described in the usher’s interface post.
The attendant can then close the panel, give the everything is in order look to the other, and the two of them depart for their break room, or jump seats, or watercooler; wherever they go for the interim.
A final viewing
Once the patient passes, the attendants come in and push the gurney along its track into the portal. But this is for show, as the gurney is on a track, and after it leaves the theater to the “backstage,” it is pulled along by a mechanized track in the floor. So it could just be automated. But seeing the attendants moving it along gives the beneficiaries some last bit of theater that the body will be respectfully dealt with.
Narrator: It won’t be.