Human corpses are paradoxical in presenting the living with one of their most real yet strangely unreal experiences of existence. While there is very little of the ‘virtual’ about corpses, they are extensively present in the digital domain, where they flourish not only in the sense of having memorials of many kinds established for them, but also in terms of the live streaming of funerals. Whatever else the digital world represents, it sustains experiences that individuals feel themselves driven to share, not least over grief.
Amidst these issues, I focus here on cremation as something much enhanced through digital communication in the UK, where it is also the dominant mode of disposal of roughly 80% of deaths (Denmark 87%, Sweden 83%, Finland 62%, Norway 48%, Iceland 41%. Statistics from the Cremation Society of Great Britain for 2022). Two features stand out: the livestreaming of funerals, and what has come to be called ‘direct cremation’, both of which intensified in the UK over the Covid-19 period. Drawing on the comparative method - a fundamental perspective in anthropology - these signpost valuable topics for Death Studies and its overlap with Digital Studies. The key research question asks if both practices continue a trend to remove the dead from the immediate presence of the living?
Before Covid, roughly some 3% to 4% of British funerals involved ‘direct cremation’, sometimes trademarked as ‘Pure Cremation’. This involves collecting a corpse from a hospital, funeral director, or other location, taking it directly to a crematorium where it is cremated without any formal ritual or ceremony, and returning the cremated remains to the deceased’s family. While it is possible for a family to attend the cremation, the whole point of this approach lies in the absence of such familial presence. The coffin may be cremated either at a crematorium relatively local to the place of death or, as has become increasingly the case, at a regional or national crematorium hub. The relevant companies engage in high levels of online logistics, covering funeral directors, families, and their fleet of vehicles. These companies depend to a great degree on highly networked logistical management of their fleet of vehicles engaged in body collection and the return of ashes across the UK. Even more significant are their web-page and television advertising of their services, and their telephone services with bereaved families. Without their digital platforms, these companies could not function.
Covid-19 increased the volume of bodies requiring cremation in the UK, often with government restrictions severely reducing family attendance. In a piece of research funded by the UK’s Cremation Society, Dr Georgina Robinson and I here at Durham University have studied this crisis period. Here, we focused on one key provider of live streaming that much helped absent mourners.
James Crossland, Managing Director of Obitus, the media-tech company providing this intense livestreaming, tells of some 180,000 people watching webcasts of funerals at the height of the first wave of Covid-19 in Britain (‘Surviving the First Wave of Covid-19’: Pharos International 2020, Vol. 86. No. 3:20-21). This increased webcasting of funerals, catalysed by the pandemic, has begun to influence the very nature of funerary rites in the UK. One survey I conducted in 2010 showed roughly 11% of UK Crematoria having provision for livestreaming, with 85% having webpages, and 31% with online Books of Remembrance (Douglas Davies, 2012). By 2021, the UK Cremation Society recorded some 75% with live-streaming facilities. A different survey of self-selecting crematoria recorded some 97% with livestreaming facilities (Forthcoming: Davies and Robinson, 2023).
Ethnography of Sub-Platform
While my initial research question concerned the sequestration of death, ongoing research suggests there is greater complexity to explore. Digital platforms can enhance distancing, while also furnishing opportunities for sharing grief. Beneath these processes lie vital ‘sub-platforms’, the vital people, individuals and corporate groups, whose own commitments support the bereaved.
We need to know more about the motivations and emotional drivers that attract and retain people in the creation and maintenance of the online platforms concerning digital death. One way of achieving this is through an appropriate ethnography of one company that has come to prominence in this work. The sociological notion of elective affinity might be just one theoretical idea that may help in this research on the individuals doing this work, as well as on their sense of corporate vocation.
Douglas Davies. ‘Revisiting British Crematoria in Public Profile.’ Pharos International. Autumn, 2012. Pp. 4 – 7.)