Encountering Corpses IV: The whys and wherefores of digital death

  • The fourth annual Encountering Corpses took place in November 2018
  • This year's event investigated the everchanging relationship between death and technology 

From Victorian age post-mortem photography to funeral selfies, humans are constantly coming up with new ways to deal with death. For as long as we can remember, death has been rediscovered countless times as society and popular culture evolves. And as technology becomes embedded more and more into our everyday lives; it is bound to have an effect on what is and always will be at the end of our lives.

On 10th November 2018, MMU’s Craig Young (Professor of Human Geography) and Helen Darby (Research Impact and Public Engagement Manager and RAH! Co-ordinator) put together a magnificently morbid line-up of speakers and demonstrations to dedicate a day to death in the digital age. Building up over quite a few years, the event has travelled from, former cemetery, All Saints Park to Manchester Museum investigating death from an array of perspectives.

Young’s work in Eastern Europe was the catalyst for the beginning of the event. His work in culture and identity politics around the 1948 communist period gave him the opportunity to work on a site that used to be a socialist mausoleum. His research went into the manoeuvring of bodies out of the mausoleum during the Romanian Revolution. The experience made him aware of the area of death studies and piqued his interest in the dead body, what is done to them and the narratives that are built around them.

In its fourth year, Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) ‘Encountering Corpses’ delved into the ‘digital death’ phenomenon as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science. An opening talk by Dr. John Troyer (Director of the Centre for Death and Society at University of Bath) quickly set the light-hearted yet uncompromising tone of the event. Troyer introduced himself as the son of a funeral director; developing a comfortable relationship with death from a young age. As emphasised throughout his talk, ‘humans are very good at dying’ and dying is something we are always trying to get good at dealing with. He touched on topics along the lines of dark tourism, which entails travelling to locations associated with death or tragedy, and the appropriateness of taking selfies at places like Auschwitz. Technology has allowed people to do questionable things like this very publicly and it begs the question of whether we are becoming even more disconnected from death through it.

Yet that same technology gives people access to things that help them keep the people they have lost alive. Social media and online forums have been used as a form of memorialisation since they were first created. Many users find solace in creating posts and having discussions about their loved ones and the grief they face as a result of losing them. Although an outsider will often wonder if this is unhealthy way of coping, you could say it is simply people adapting to modern society in every aspect of life. And that does not necessarily stop at death. With thanks to artificial intelligence, there are even chatbots which allow you to talk to the dead. Developed by Eugenia Kuyda in 2017 after her best friend died, these ‘griefbots’ mimic the messages the person would send if they were still alive. Creating this illusion may not be perceived as an effective way of dealing with the loss of someone in the long term but, in a time where a lot of us do not know how to grieve, it’s something to consider.

Death is a part of our past, present and, maybe the most daunting of all, our future. Ideas of a ‘future cemetery’ are very much advancing with along with technology. Troyer spoke about holograms almost definitely being a normal form of memorialisation in the future. His society are currently working on creating different forms of augmented reality in which holograms of actors can talk to you through a device as you wander around different graves. He said, if we want it, we can in theory put our entire digital footprint into a cemetery just like you could as soon as Facebook was created.  Yet with the speed at which technology advances nowadays it is very possible that the physical memorialisation will still outlast these digital elements. We may be left just with a faded, scannable QR code on a robust, granite gravestone that has another 100 years before it starts to deteriorate.

Further into the day, a demo fair was held on the ground floor displaying an end of life simulation, art projects, a virtual dissection table and a FaceLab display. Following introductions to each of the pieces of technology, guests were given three hours to watch how they work and ask any burning questions.

The end of life simulation consisted of a mannequin given his own name and backstory who has reached the end of his life. From checking pulses to injecting morphine, the technology is responsive to everything carried out in attempt to save the mannequin’s life. Sadly, he never pulls through. It is being used for practicing nurses to prepare for the reality of breaking the news of a death to a patient’s loved ones. Some guests questioned how realistic this procedure is; knowing it isn’t an actual life in the nurse’s hands. Speakers soon made us aware of the amount of work that goes into making it as real as possible from the clinical environment to an actor playing the deceased’s wife.

A very pricey Anatomage virtual dissection table was carefully transported to the event for display. The highly advanced piece of equipment is used in schools and universities for teaching science students anatomy and physiology when it is not necessary for them to practice on a real body. The digital cadaver was created from an MRI scan of a man who donated his body to science and died on death row. Most guests spent at least half an hour each amazed by the detail of each vessel, bone and tissue. Itching to have a go at dissecting the top of his head – just because they can.

The final talk of the day was with Professor Erin Edwards, author of ‘The Modernist Corpse’ which covers post humanism and challenges traditional views of the dead body. Edwards travelled all the way from Miami to read an incredibly eloquent and illuminating essay about the modern relationship between technology and the corpse. The talk had the audience grinning throughout at the, surface level, ridiculous alternatives to post-death traditions that soon could be taken very seriously. She informed the audience of the shocking annual costs of burial in the US with just a few being 800,000 gallons of toxic embalming fluid, 90,000 tons of steel and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete. So, what is the alternative? Turning dead bodies into batteries could very well be it. Edwards spoke in depth about the ‘Afterlife’ project which presents the idea of converting corpses into energy for the Earth as opposed to disposal that could be damaging the Earth. She filled the audience’s heads with all sorts of absurd ideas for after we die, leaving everyone with too many options to choose from.

When exploring such a delicate subject as death, questions of whether things are being approached appropriately and ethically are in the back of everyone’s minds. Taking place in Manchester Southern Cemetery Crematorium, 2016’s Encountering Corpses particularly raised ethical conundrums. The organisers planned a tour of the crematorium as part of the event without expecting a cremation to be happening that same day. Although the people working at the crematorium were happy to allow the tour to go on, Young and Darby decided to cancel this part of the day out of respect for the deceased’s family and friends. Yet this left some people wondering why during an event named ‘Encountering Corpses’, the organisers actively avoided such an authentic opportunity to encounter a corpse.

Centring on the digital side of death, on the surface of 2018’s event there were not many glaring ethical problems. Not until I found myself glancing out of the window of Number 70 Oxford Street at people walking past Vittorio Manetti’s exhibition of a very realistic dissected human arm. Young said that ethics of representation and display were at the forefront of his mind both before and during the event saying ‘We don’t usually have to do much about it because people know what to expect. But if someone walked in and wasn’t prepared to see these things it might be quite upsetting.’ Even for people with going into the event with expectations he addressed the possibility of the displays or talks connecting to a person’s grief and causing them pain or distress. ‘There’s an ethical duty of care to participants. You just don’t know what every individual brings to the event.’ Young said.

Young acknowledged that a lot of the death studies conferences he has been to tend to be predominantly attended by women. ‘A lot of these things are quite gendered. The death cafe movement has been criticised because it’s basically white middle class people the go to it and do it. There has always been a social class distinction around the customs and traditions around the practices of death.’ Taking a good look around the room he delightedly pointed out the unusual amount of men attending the fourth annual event. But was quick to acknowledge the lack of ethnic diversity. ‘I definitely think there’s something there around different religions and cultures. It would be really interesting to have people from different faiths coming along.’

Encountering Corpses was created to provoke more of a dialogue about death and help people to develop a healthy relationship with the dead body. Young spoke about the massive amount of people he has met who talk very openly about death since being involved in the field. ‘The more I went to events about death, the more I realised it was these people’s everyday lives.’ He said. ‘I think there’s been quite a lot of changes over the past two years such as death positivity movements and civil initiatives. It’s becoming more of a public discourse.’ Young spoke about the possibility that the ‘medicalisation’ of death in the 18th Century dwindled discussion in Western society when death became something associated with professional spaces like hospitals. He believes increasing representation of death in popular culture is increasing its visibility again.

For many people death is an uncomfortable topic, an unproductive topic or a painful topic. Hearing guests and speakers share personal stories of their experiences with grief without the preamble of ‘sorry to bring the mood down’ was incredibly refreshing. Young spoke to me about how events like Encountering Corpses have impacted his own relationship with death, nodding to the fact he may be reflecting more about mortality now that his parents are getting older. Death is becoming less like an enemy and more acceptable and natural to him as he explores it through the medium of the event. ‘It won’t make it any easier or any less painful, but it gives you that different perspective on it.’ he admitted on the topic of losing a loved one.

With another successful Encountering Corpses in the bag, plans for next year are already surfacing. Animal and pet death are on the agenda for the next event with a possible look into taxidermy. Young said “The death of a companion animals isn’t taken that seriously. There’s this automatic assumption that an animal life is more valuable than a human life.” The ‘encounter’ for this one could be in the form of taxidermy art exhibitions with input from bereavement charities and rescue centres, to farmers and vets.

Coming away from the day, there were dozens of new and altered ideas about death running around in my head. Death has been fully embraced by technology and given humans the chance to live on digitally even when their physical form is gone. ‘In the year 2065, there will be more dead Facebook users than alive ones.’ Troyer suggested during his talk. So with a vast majority of people living their lives online as much as they are offline, does anybody truly die anymore?