How do the dead live among us today? What kind of relationships can be established between the living and the dead in today’s society? How does one achieve immortality in the present- day digital society? What is the relevance of digital afterlife to both the dead and the living?
These questions lie at the heart of the interdisciplinary research consortium Digital Death: Transforming History, Rituals and Afterlife (DiDe) that brings together media and communication scholars, sociologists, historians, and anthropologists from different European universities. In this blog, researchers contributing to the DiDe consortium talk about their ongoing research and research interests that are linked to the wider topic of ‘digital death’.
What is digital death?
DiDe starts with the idea that human death in contemporary society (namely, our work focuses on European societies) is undergoing cultural and social transformation, being increasingly shaped and infiltrated by the digital saturation of the present life (Lagerkvist 2022). Such development, we argue, affects death as a social and cultural phenomenon in multiple ways.
Not only does digital death transform the ideas, beliefs, and conceptions of death in society, it also shapes and alters the relationships between the living and the dead (Bassett 2022). Moreover, the values and morals associated with human death are undergoing change, and institutional structures that manage and control death in society are also being reconfigured (Walter 2020; Jacobsen 2021; Sumiala 2021).
Today, life as digitally saturated impacts all areas of death; those about to die and those in mourning. In addition, digital death affects professionals and institutions ranging from hospitals to funerary homes and religious orders working with death and the dead in contemporary society.
That said, in DiDe we approach death as an object of accelerated cultural and social transformation in contemporary society. Following this, we define ‘digital death’ as more than just death performed in a digital context; it is a practice articulated and performed in interaction with communication and culture saturated with the digital, and as such, it is a concern for the dying, the departed as well as those in mourning.
Studying digital death
There are many ways to study digital death. In DiDe, we ask the following questions:
- How has digital death, as an idea and a concept, emerged and developed when examined through the past and present of modern European societies?
- How are everyday contemporary death practices related to online and offline mourning and commemoration in society?
- How does digital death transform social relationships among the living, but also between the living and the departed?
- How does digitalisation of death shape worldviews and related ideas of future postmortal communication in the context of afterlife and immortality?
- What kinds of ethical dilemmas associated with the value of human life and death emerge due to digitalisation of death in present-day society?
We look at these questions in a variety of different contexts ranging from online funerals to ‘onlife’ mourning (see also Floridi 2015), whether in ordinary settings or in the aftermath of major public death events. We also explore the afterlife of data as well as AI driven conversations with thanabots and much more.
While we are open to methodological exploration, many studies in DiDe apply ethnographic methods; some combine online with offline ethnography and autoethnography, others dive into social media and conduct their fieldwork in fully digital settings.
Finally, in DiDe we understand that Digital Death – whatever approach one takes - is by no means a neutral issue in contemporary society. Hence, there is a need to be sensitive to different moral, ethical, juridical, and political problems it might entail.
We hope this blog series will provide new insights as well as encourage conversation and critical thinking about what digital death might mean for all of us, for the living but also for the dead, for ritual practices of mourning as well as for remembering. The bi-weekly posts are written by scholars representing different fields of study and will thus offer different perspectives to these complex yet fundamental issues.
Let the conversation begin.
Basset, D. J. (2022). The Creation and Inheritance of Digital Afterlives: You Only Live Twice. Palgrave McMillan
Floridi, L. (eds.) (2015) The Onlife Manifesto. Being Human in a Hyperconnected Era. Springer.
Jacobsen, M. H. ed. (2021). The Age of Spectacular Death. London: Routledge.
Lagerkvist, A. (2022). Existential Media. A Media Theory of a Limit Situation. Oxford University Press.
Sumiala, J. (2021). Mediated Death. Polity.
Walter, T. (2020). Death in the Modern World. Sage.