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.

Burial ground zero: the crisis facing Sydney’s cemeteries

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.”

For more information, read the full story here.

Mass Graves and Unmarked Coffins: Mike Arnold on the Disaster & Change podcast series

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.

Listen on the player below or on your favourite podcast platform. A full transcript of the episode is available on the SHAPS Forum website.

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 hannah.gould@unimelb.edu.au 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. 

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