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.
DeathTech Team member Dr Hannah Gould recently talked to ABC News Sunday Extra about the problem of capacity facing Australia’s cemeteries today and in to the future, and how we might solve it by adopting the international practice of reusing graves.
Samuel Holleran spoke to Conor Burke about how images of mass burial and cremation around the world became symbolic of the losses suffered during Covid-19: loss of life, loss of individuality and loss of ritual normally associated with a ‘good death’.
Broadcast on Sydney’s Eastside Radio 89.7 FM on Sunday 30th May. Listen here.
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.
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
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?
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.
Dr Hannah Gould spoke to the Guardian about the crisis of space affecting Sydney’s cemeteries.
From the article:
Gould compares the situation to climate change.
“It’s a slow moving crisis, and it’s hard to communicate exactly why it’s a problem … until all of a sudden we’ve got a situation where it’s here.”
Culturally, socially and physically “people are being pushed further and further away from the dead”.
“At the end of the day, cemeteries are public infrastructure like libraries and swimming pools, they need to meet the public’s best interests,” Gould says.
“When someone we love dies, the availability of cemetery space becomes really important. But if you don’t have that connection, people don’t think about the rights of the dead. They’re an unknown, anonymous monolith. And we don’t like the idea of giving space to them.”
Professor Mike Arnold discusses his research on the intersections between death, technology and society, in this final episode of the SHAPS Forum ‘Disaster & Change’ podcast series, hosted by Dr Henry Reese.
Call for Papers: Special Issue for Anthropology Quarterly
Anthropology has long framed death as a crisis, both within an individual’s life trajectory and for the existential continuity of the community. In the tradition of scholarship following Hertz (1960), mortuary and funerary rituals are framed as a site of collective action mounted in response to crisis. They are transformative and curative in their ability to shepherd the dead into new worlds or remake them into new kinds of beings; to provide psychological comfort to the bereaved; and to stitch back together social worlds in the absence of the dead. The performance of religious rituals, production of memorial goods, and speaking of “words against death” (Davies 1998), across multiple generations, effectively locates the deceased within a community and a cosmos.
But what happens when death rituals themselves face crisis?
Over the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has not only threatened human life and livelihoods, it has disrupted and radically reshaped experiences of dying, body disposal, grief, and memorialization around the world. With its virulent growth, Covid-19 has strained, and in some cases overwhelmed, the infrastructure and human resources in place for handling the dead, as illustrated by news coverage of overflowing morgues, crematoria running throughout the night, and mass graves. Social distancing regulations have impeded rites of washing and dressing the dead, restricted attendance at funerals, and limited cemetery visitation.
The implications of these changes are still emerging, but popular media and industry voices point to their potentially devastating consequences. At the same time, communities around the world have responded to Covid-19-related restrictions with great creative energies, generating new ritual practices and new applications of technology. These innovations are not universal, but respond to particular religious contexts and cultural desires around death.
Anthropologists recognize the capacity of death rites to transform bodies, souls, and social relations, but they have generally been less attentive to what happens when death ritual itself is disrupted or how it is transformed (see Simpson 2018). Nor has anthropology substantively engaged with the experiences of those carrying out the labors of contemporary death care (but see Arnold et al. 2018; Howarth 1996; Suzuki 2000).
Contributions to this Special Issue will examine how disruptions to practices around death brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic challenge, extend, or transform anthropological understandings of death ritual and its place in uncertain times. Contributors will draw on original ethnographic research conducted with death care workers, religious communities, and mourners in diverse locations around the world. They will address questions including, but not limited to, the following:
What are the impacts (emotional, financial, etc.) of the disruption to death ritual during the pandemic? Who feels these impacts? Who is shielded from them?
What elements of funerary rituals are considered more critical or essential to retain or reproduce during Covid-19?
How do virtual/online/digital technologies transform the funeral service? What do these technologies allow, restrict, and/or change?
What makes a new or modified funeral rite meaningful or efficacious? Who decides this and what happens when people disagree?
How is the temporality of the funeral and the expected mourning processes impacted by the pandemic?
What is the role of the dead body in death rites during Covid-19? Who cares for bodies?
How is the work of the anthropologist challenged by the conditions of pandemics? What are the ethical, methodological, or theoretical concerns that arise?
This Special Issue will include a maximum of five full-length articles (<10,500 words).
Given the limited number of the contributions, scholars are encouraged to write collaboratively in teams, as multiple submissions on a single field location are unlikely to be accepted. Scholars with non-English language backgrounds are strongly encouraged to apply and will be given special support, including opportunities to co-author.
Additional submissions of diverse formats, including ‘Social Thought and Commentary’ (<8000 words), Photo Essays (10 images and 3,000-6,000 words), and book reviews (1000-2000 words) will also be considered. Book reviews on topics related to death are especially encouraged from ECA and graduate students.
1. Authors names, email addresses, and affiliations
2. An abstract of 300-500 words
A CV may also be requested.
First drafts will be due October 31st 2021.
Special Issue Editors
Hannah Gould is ARC Research Fellow with the DeathTech Research Team at the University of Melbourne and President of the Australian Death Studies Society. Her scholarship is concerned with the material and sensory dimensions of death and disposal, from alternative body disposal practice to minimalism. During 2020, she led the Remote, Restricted, and Redesigned research project, investigating the impact of Covid-19 on Australia’s death care industry.
Tamara Kohn is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Melbourne. She has conducted fieldwork in Scotland, Nepal, US, and Japan. Research interests include humanistic anthropology, communities of practice, the body and senses, prison lives, death studies, and research methods and ethics. She is part of the DeathTech Research Team, studying death, commemoration, and new technologies of disposal and interment. Recent co-authored books from the team include Kohn et al (eds) 2019 Residues of Death (Routledge), and Arnold et al 2018 Death and Digital Media (Routledge).