The disruption and regeneration of death during the Covid-19 pandemic

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. 

See the Journal’s Submission Guidelines for more information on formats. 

To apply, please submit the following to by March 1st 2021

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).  

Art, Death and Disposal: artist open call announcement

DeathTech’s open call to artists received 34 innovative and thoughtful proposals – thank you to all of those who so generously responded to the call.

We are excited to announce the following artists have been commissioned from the shortlist, and the team is looking forward to working with all: 

Georgia Banks

Catherine Bell 

Farnaz Dadfar

Eric Jong

Chantelle Mitchell and Jaxon Waterhouse

Laura Woodward

The Future Cemetery: Release of the first annual Survey and Workshop Reports

The DeathTech team are pleased to present two new reports from our Future Cemetery Research Project. This project is funded by The Australian Research Council (LP180100757) with the support of our Linkage Partners, The Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (GMCT).

The Future Cemetery project aims to identify and critically assess the potential of innovative technologies to enhance the public’s experience of the cemetery, diversify service offerings and strengthen community connections, all in the context of rapidly changing circumstances. For more information about the research, please see our project page.

As part of this project, DeathTech will conduct an annual survey of the Australian public and their attitudes toward how cemetery spaces are used, as well as an annual workshop with death care industry partners. The reports from the first round of surveys and workshops are available for download below.

A fertile time for death disruptors: ‘People are finding meaning in these new rituals’

A new article in The Guardian looks at the new players and new practices in death care that have attained greater prominence under the restrictions of Covid-19.

DeathTech team member Samuel Holleran provides an explanation of some of these “death disruptors”:

They’re coming into a locked-in industry that has all sorts of received traditions that go back to before the second world war, and they’re trying to do something different.

The full article can be found here.

How technology is changing the way we grieve

This week, several members of the DeathTech Research Team were featured in the ABC Radio National programme, God Forbid. Listen here.

Is it possible to be biologically dead, but socially alive? What would that entail? On God Forbid, James and panel find out more about the digital afterlife. 

In this episode: 

Ever logged into Facebook and received a notification about someone – or from someone – who has died? It’s more common than you may think, and it’s only going to happen more. 

We now have the technology to create online avatars that can imitate a deceased person’s speech and mannerisms, based off their digital footprint. It’s a technology that raises questions about the boarders between the living and the dead. 

Across culture and religion, rituals for grief and mourning vary greatly. Is it possible to translate these rituals to the online world? Why or why not?


Dr Hannah Gould is a cultural anthropologist and ARC Research Fellow with ‘The DeathTech Research Team’ at the University of Melbourne. She just completed her doctoral thesis on the transforming memorial culture of Japan. She now researches high-tech death – and how the current COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way we deal with dead people.

Rev Dr Robyn Whitaker is a Uniting Church minister and Senior Lecturer in New Testament studies at Pilgrim theological college in the University of Divinity. Her academic specialty is end of world apocalyptic studies. She got her doctorate from the University of Chicago and was a Postdoctoral fellow at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. 

OPEN CALL: Art, Death and Disposal

During a time of rapid change and global crisis, the interdisciplinary DeathTech team at the University of Melbourne is researching the intersection of death, technology and society. We are exploring practices used to dispose of the deceased, from burial and cremation to newly emerging techniques and designs for the treatment of the dead, for example high-rise cemeteries, water cremation and body composting.

We invite up to five artists to join this collaborative research project, to produce innovative new work on death and disposal for exhibition in Melbourne in July 2021. Specifically, work is invited that responds to our central question: 

How might disposal of the deceased be designed in the 21st century? 

Works in any media are encouraged, including digital video and/or photography, sculpture, textiles, drawing, and installation.

Up to five artists will each receive an award of $2,000 AUD. Their work will feature in a dedicated exhibition and catalogue. Their work will be selected by a panel comprising: 

  • Simone Slee, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne; 
  • Edward Colless, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, and Editor Art + Australia
  • Elizabeth Hallam, University of Oxford; 
  • Tamara Kohn, University of Melbourne, 
  • Michael Arnold, University of Melbourne.

Applications should be submitted by 31 July 2020, 12 midnight [AEST]

Further information

Artists are invited to produce new work in collaboration with the DeathTech’s research project Disposal of the dead: beyond burial and cremation

This research – ever more pressing at the current time of unprecedented global challenge with the effects of Covid-19 – focuses on emerging technologies of disposal in the context of social, cultural and environmental issues, institutional responses, public discourses, personal ethics, and worldviews. It explores innovations in body disposal technologies, their potentials and limitations, and their wider socio-cultural impacts, from the perspectives of designers, death workers and their industries, and wider cultural and religious communities. To see more about this research please see the link provided below.

The DeathTech team invites applications from artists to create work that is integral to this project, its key themes and concerns; the artists’ work will inform the research, as will public responses to the exhibition. The aim is for artists to engage with the team’s research, and produce work that explores significant aspects of death and the technologies that surround bodies of the deceased. 

So we invite artists to respond to the question: How might disposal of the deceased be designed in the 21st century? 

Art works might, for example, address issues of design, sensory experience, social response, and memory-making in relation to burial, cremation, and/or emerging and future alternatives to these practices.  

Five artists or artists’ collectives will be selected through this open call. We encourage proposals that are experimental, and are excited to work with artists in any area of practice including design, research-based artwork, and public art. The successful artists will:

  • work collaboratively with the DeathTech team
  • create work that can be displayed effectively at the project’s exhibition venue; each artist will have exhibition space of up to approx. 18m x 4m wall space or 66 meter square floor space (to be confirmed during the development of the exhibition: works need to be responsive to the site)
  • have their work featured in the exhibition’s dedicated catalogue
  • have the opportunity to offer their work for sale at the exhibition
  • be invited to participate in associated events at the exhibition

Proposals in any media will be considered including: digital video and/or photography, work that can be projected and/or suspended, sculpture, drawing, and interactive installation. As the artists appointed will collaborate with the DeathTech team, and make work that is responsive to the possibilities and constraints of the exhibition venue, artists should be based in, or temporarily residing in Melbourne.

For further information please contact Prof Michael Arnold ( and Dr Elizabeth Hallam (

Proposals should include: 

  1. A description of the proposed work (max. 1000 words, PDF), including indication of how it responds to the research question: How might disposal of the deceased be designed in the 21st century? 
  2. Ten images to support the proposal. These can be a combination of images of existing works or proposals for new works (individually saved at 72-dpi; max. 30 x 30cm, JPEG or PDF). Artists working in video formats should also send examples, up to five minutes of video (max. of 50MB combined attachments or a link to a YouTube or Vimeo account).
  3. A current CV (max. 3 pages, PDF)

Please ensure that all of the files you send have a file name using the artist’s name.

Proposals should be emailed as a compressed or archived file (ZIP) to  Prof Michael Arnold ( and Dr Elizabeth Hallam (

Key dates: 

  • Applications open: 20 June 2020
  • Applications close: 31 July 2020, 12 midnight [AEST]
  • Applicants will be informed of interview dates in July and the outcome of their application by 31 August 2020.

Remote, Restricted, and Redesigned: Funerals in the time of Coronavirus

In June 2020, the DeathTech Research Team hosted a virtual roundtable discussion with death scholars and practitioners in Australia, the UK and the US, to share how funerals have changed under the coronavirus pandemic and to discuss what this might mean for the future of death.

The COVID-19 pandemic not only represents a serious threat to human life and livelihoods, it has transformed experiences of death, grief, and memorialisation around the globe. Social distancing orders have upended cultural and religious traditions of mourning by restricting interaction with the deceased, attendance at funerals, and grave visitation at cemeteries. Simultaneously, communities have found creative responses to these restrictions through new rituals and new uses of technology. The ongoing implications of this period of disrupted death are only beginning to be understood.

The DeathTech team has led a collaborative effort to gather stories of death during the COVID-19 pandemic at the following online platform:


The roundtable was moderated by Dr Hannah Gould, a cultural anthropologist and ARC Research Fellow with the DeathTech Research Team. Hannah conducted her doctoral fieldwork on the life and death of memorial technologies within Buddhist death care sector in Japan, and now works on research into alternative disposal technologies and the future of Australia’s cemeteries.


Mariam Ardati is a Funeral Director, Consultant and Educator based in Sydney. For the past 12 years, Mariam has dedicated her time as both a volunteer and care consultant for a number of funeral services, where she performs the funeral rites in accordance with Islamic tradition, provides spiritual and practical care to the grieving, and assists families through the coroner’s court and its processes. Mariam holds a Health Sciences degree (Health Information Management) from the University of Sydney and is a Director and Consultant at Sakina Funerals.

Stephanie Longmuir is an End of Life Celebrant, Podcaster and Consultant. She has been serving the families of Melbourne and Sydney since 2009, creating unique and meaningful services. Determined to better prepare and inform families, in 2015 Stephanie founded, Australia’s first digital funeral planning service, and in 2017 she launched a podcast series, Dying to Tell, in collaboration with Melbourne radio station Joy 94.9. She is a skilled writer and speaker and has been invited by ICCFA, NFDA and AFDA to present at their annual conferences.

Dr John Troyer is the Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. He is a co-founder of the Death Reference Desk website, the Future Cemetery Project and a frequent commentator for the BBC. His new book Technologies of the Human Corpse was published by The MIT Press on April 28, 2020. He grew up in the American funeral industry.

Louise Winter is a funeral director and the founder of Poetic Endings, a modern funeral company in London. Her mission is to get people to really think about the importance of funerals. She believes that a good funeral can be transformational in helping us acknowledge and accept that someone has died. She’s the co-founder of Life. Death. Whatever., a new approach to death and dying, showing how exploring our mortality really can change our lives. Her work has been featured in publications around the world. Her first book will be published by Bloomsbury in March 2021.

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