An Essential Service: Experiences of Australian Deathcare Workers during COVID-19 [Report]

An Essential Service examines on the experiences of Australian deathcare workers during COVID-19.

Deathcare is an essential service, one that upholds the dignity of the dying and the deceased, addresses the emotional, cultural, and spiritual needs of the bereaved and their community, and protects public health. However, the ongoing lack of recognition for deathcare as essential during the COVID-19 crisis, both within public health directives, and more broadly, by the media, non-governmental and commercial bodies, and the wider community, has impeded the sector’s ability to delivery high-quality care and to protect the welfare of its workers.

The report presents the results of a scoping investigation for the period between June 2020 and June 2021. It is based on qualitative data collected via a survey of Australian deathcare providers and semi-structured interviews with workers representing different segments of the sector. It focuses on the professional and personal impacts of COVID-19 and makes several recommendations for future policy and research.

Citation: Gould, Hannah & Samuel Holleran (2021) An Essential Service: Experiences of Australian Deathcare Workers during COVID-19 [Report]. The University of Melbourne.

In addition to the report, the team is releasing a public preview of our photo exhibition, entitled Endline: Deathcare During Melbourne’s Covid Crisis.

Endline is a photo series by Bri Hammond, created in collaboration with the researchers Hannah Gould and Samuel Holleran. It pays tribute to the diverse people who work in deathcare, from palliative care clinicians and funeral directors, to morticians, religious celebrants, crematoria operators, and cemetery staff.

Endline will be issued as a photo book accompanied by essays. Endline will also be exhibited in Melbourne at the beginning of 2022. See the website for a preview of the images.

Encyclopedia of Cemetery Technology

The Encyclopedia of Cemetery Technology is a global map and directory of technologies that augment the experience of interacting with a cemetery. It was created by the DeathTech Research Team as part of the Future Cemetery project, based on a systematic review of academic, industry and popular publications about cemeteries and technology.

The Encyclopedia summarises the type and function of existing cemetery technologies. The major application categories are:

The Encyclopedia is now open to contributions.

Public seminar: Digital Technologies for the Future Cemetery

In this public seminar for the University of Melbourne School of Computing & Information Systems, Dr Fraser Allison presented several studies from The Future Cemetery project.

He introduced the major challenges that cemeteries face in the 21st century, described notable examples and a typology of digital cemetery technologies from around the world, and summarised what we have found about public attitudes to digital cemetery technologies in Australia.

Art, Death & Disposal exhibition (POSTPONED)

How might disposal of the deceased be designed in the 21st century? Imagining beyond burial and cremation – in a world of rapid social, technological and environmental change – seven artists respond to this question, presenting moving and provocative new work.

In collaboration with DeathTech Research Team, University of Melbourne

The exhibition is part of ongoing research on the future of disposal after death, and encourages visitors’ responses to, and participation in, artworks.

Opening: 18 August, 6–8pm
Exhibition dates: 19–22 August, 3–8pm

Meat Market Stables, 2 Wreckyn Street, North Melbourne

Curated by Elizabeth Hallam, University of Oxford, with the DeathTech Research Team, University of Melbourne.

Supported by Australian Research Council grants DP18010314 and LP180100757.
Photo credit: Laura Woodward, How do we hold these things together? (detail), 2021, image by the artist.

Cemeteries could be places where we can all find some rest and peace – The Age

DeathTech team member Samuel Holleran spoke to Maeve McGregor about how a new cemetery at Harkness, Melbourne’s largest new cemetery development in a century, could double as a recreational site:

There’s a growing recognition that what cemeteries can deliver best are things that planners are often looking for elsewhere: walk-ability and urban green space.

Read the full story here.

Artist Meets Expert: Death Tech at the Wheeler Centre

Professor Michael Arnold spoke with musician and artist Sui Zhen at The Wheeler Centre on 28th April. The event was part of Melbourne Knowledge Week.

Event description:

Given enough data, can AI recreate the essence of a human consciousness? In this conversation, avant-pop musician and artist Sui Zhen – creator of the Melbourne Knowledge Week performance Losing, Linda – joins Professor Michael Arnold of the University of Melbourne DeathTech Research Team to discuss where artistic expression intersects with themes of death and grief.

Losing, Linda, combines upbeat electronic pop songs with video art, encouraging Sui’s audience to reflect on mortality and memorialisation, while Arnold’s research lies at the intersection of technology, death, and social media. Both consider what it means to live and die in the Digital Age.

Presented in partnership with Melbourne Knowledge Week.

Art, Memory, Place: The Role of Public Art in the Future Cemetery


In March 2021, Samuel Holleran participated in a panel discussion for MPavilion about cemeteries and the role of public art in memorial spaces. The event was co-organised with the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, and the recording is now available to watch on YouTube.

Participants: Dr Amy Spiers, Claire Martin, Samuel Holleran, Hamish Coates and Katrina Simon

Event description:

Contemporary cemeteries are moving towards becoming places of community, through their increasing permeability, adaptability and open space contributions. This discussion explored how art can facilitate this transition, reflect on the rich and changing multicultural populations of Melbourne and support people experiencing grief, or otherwise visiting.

Moderated by Katrina Simon, RMIT University’s Associate Dean of Landscape Architecture, the discussion featured an interdisciplinary panel of practitioners and academics. Audience involvement was encouraged, to help the panel interrogate current practices, speculate on potential roles and muse on opportunities for art within future memorial spaces.

While the arts sector has been heavily impacted during this pandemic, many people are thinking about death more than they ever have before. The conversation explored complex questions regarding the ways public art can play an important role in providing opportunities for collaboration, connection and new voices through engagement in the cemetery landscape. Can public art provide support to people experiencing grief? What is the value of participation with public art and how might this translate to the cemetery environment? How can symbolism and woven narratives reflect personal stories and instil our sense of place in the city? How might we normalise discussion about death and dying?

Who will deal with your online presence when you die? How to create a ‘digital will’

DeathTech research collaborator Dr Emily van der Nagel spoke to the Guardian recently about preparing a “digital will” and organising your digital legacy.

From the article:

Dr Emily van der Nagel from Monash University says that people should spend some time planning for how their online accounts and identities will be managed after they die.

At a basic level, she says people should think of it like backing up their data. If there are things you want to preserve – for your family, friends or for your own records – it’s best to download a version so that you won’t have to rely on third-party companies.

That could be favourite photos, tweets, blog posts, videos or songs you’ve uploaded.

“A lot of platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and in some cases YouTube, offer really good tools for you to download everything that has been part of that platform,” she says. “That is really good practice to do, semi-regularly, say when you are updating your passwords.

Read the full story here.

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