ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

Death and technology
Location Science Site/Maths CM107
Date and Start Time 06 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Tamara Kohn (University of Melbourne) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

As new technologies shape practices of death, disposal and memory, this panel asks: What kinds of publics gather around online memorials and with what affect? How will we deal with digital and material remains in the future? How are relations around death given new meaning through new technology?

Long Abstract

Contemporary and emerging technologies are reshaping experiences of death, disposal and memorialisation. Technologies allow social presence to persist beyond death through some form of digital afterlife; practices of everyday media-making raise questions about managing and curating immaterial legacies; and questions of sustainability and culture are driving new means of dealing with bodily remains after death. Together, these issues reimagine and reshape life and death in relation to notions of personhood, social relations with the living and with the dead, and the material and intersubjective dimensions of death.

Submissions are invited for a panel addressing death and technology, including, but not limited to:

• the material culture of funeral and memorialization practices

• changes in the sequestration and institutionalization of death

• the deployment of social media and their networked publics to narrate the personhood of the dead

• the social life of the dead through online media

• memorials associated with virtual worlds such as Second Life, World of Warcraft and Eve Online

• innovations in the funeral industry, and the implications of new goods and services for the experiences that surround death

• the curation and disposal of a digital legacy

• innovations in body disposal and the sense these make of death, the body and personhood.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Cremation, sequestration and the committal

Author: Michael Arnold (University of Melbourne)  email

Short Abstract

We present a critical analysis of the architecture and performance of cremation, especially the sequestration and committal of the body. Through participant observation in Australian, UK and US crematoria, we find the finality of death contrasted by the convoluted rituals of cremation.

Long Abstract

In this paper we present a critical analysis of the architecture of crematoria and the performance of cremation, with particular reference to the sequestration of the body, and the committal of the body. Informed by participant observation in Australian, UK and US crematoria, we observe that in the performance of the rituals associated with cremation the body passes through numerous stages of sequestration.

Through these stages the presence of personhood waxes and wanes, from the "viewing" where the deceased is visible for the last time, to the deployment of media - in particular images and music - to the eulogies and tributes, culminating in the committal.

The committal is a ritual that mimics the death itself: it is a moment of finality at which the dead are made separate from the living. This is truly the end. Upon the committal he or she is gone, however, following Curl (2002), we show that the technologies and rituals of cremation often provide for the committal in a very imperfect way.

In now common forms of committal the living leave the dead - denying rather than reflecting the experience of the dead leaving the living. In other forms, the catafalque causes the dead to leave the living but the finality implicit in the committal has still not been achieved. The body is not yet cremated, nor have the material remains been finally sequestered.

Through attention to the protocols, mechanics and dynamics of cremation, this paper contributes to a materialist understanding of our contemporary relationship with death.

Technology and the humanist funeral practioner

Author: Simon Allen (self-employed)  email

Short Abstract

Across 25 years of taking Humanist funerals, the progression of technology in funerals has increased steadily and these are the ways it affects my work.

Long Abstract

1. Families use e-mail and TXT for information, music, images of deceased.

2. Crematoria had no tape or CD players. Now standard, also digital play-out systems.

3. Showing analogue video/slide of deceased. Some Crems now have screens and digital projectors. Commercial companies offer this service.

4. Webcasting of funerals started in The Netherlands. Now becoming standard.

5. Mourners asked if they could photograph the coffin and floral tributes. Now they just use Smartphones. Commercial companies offer photography services.

6. Family used analogue video camera at the funeral, now iPads, digital cameras and Smartphones.

7. A family defeated by the passwords of their son (an IT professional) so there were very few at the funeral as they could not notify his friends. Public recognition of the problem and action by Facebook et al.

8. Whilst I am still shown photo albums, I am referred to Facebook, given temporary membership to gather information and view images. Also sent from other social media and online Obituaries.

9. Audio conferencing during my family visit. Family now use video Skype, to include a relative overseas.

10. Mourners read tributes/poems from Smartphones and Tablets during the funeral.

I can provide examples of all of the above and more, from my direct experience, in an illustrated paper.

On hybrid memorials: materiality, digitality and death

Author: David Kirk (Newcastle University)  email

Short Abstract

Hybrid Memorials are artefacts and spaces, which bring together elements of the digital and physical in a memorialization context. Working through a number of examples, both realized and conceptual designs, this paper explores an emerging design space for new forms of memorialization.

Long Abstract

In various spheres of research, lifeworlds of the digital and the physical are posited almost as entirely separate entities. There is often a desire to treat the digital as a separate realm to the physical with its own concerns, practices and moral orders. In the study of practices of memorialization we have seen much work which does indeed hold these worlds as separate areas of interest, and yet with the rise of embedded technology, the internet-of-things and new forms of materiality (for example organic user interfaces) there are increasing opportunities to blend access to both digital and physical memorialized 'matter' in ways that create new forms of memorial artefact - which we might conceive of as 'hybrid memorials'.

Herein, I would like to discuss some case examples of hybrid memorials, both realized and conceptual/speculative designs, which are beginning to unpack the potential of hybridized artefacts and spaces with regard to practices of memorialization in the digital age. The paper moves from the woods and mass graves of rural Slovenia, through digital maps of 'scattered ashes', to the reconceptualization of memorial architecture (memorial benches) and bespoke interventions, hybridized urns, for domestic spaces.

In critically examining these cases the paper attempts to sketch out a design space for the development of new kinds of memorialized artefact, that work with the incarnate grieving and commemoration practices of people coming to terms with loss, whilst dealing with the potential digital residua of a life or lives.

Footprints of war: the meaning of artefacts and personal effects from mass graves in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Author: Admir Jugo (Durham)  email

Short Abstract

To examine the claims that are placed on the objects excavated from mass graves in BiH, claims made by family members, judiciary and the society as a whole and it will show that persons and objects excavated are not disparate in significance but that their symbolic importance is intertwined.

Long Abstract

With a landscape of once clandestine, now marked and, in many cases, excavated gravesites, postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) still bears the scars of a war almost twenty years past. A war with over 100.000 casualties and around 31.500 persons missing, mostly as a result of mass executions and burials in mass graves across the country and its neighbours. Excavations are part of BiH's slow, at times painful and contentious, path toward reckoning with that past, as missing persons represent objects of care for seemingly disparate spheres of scientific, religious, political and social activity. But it is not those that are excavated that are powerful symbols alone, the material objects that are excavated with them also hold scientific, religious, political and social importance. This paper will outline the legal prescriptions for these objects, and it will examine the claims that are placed on the objects excavated from mass graves in BiH, claims made by family members, judiciary and law agencies and the society as a whole. It will show that these objects, even today, play an important role in lives of people in BiH. This paper will also explain these claims through examination of the reaction to the revelation that the ICTY destroyed some 1.000 objects collected from excavation sites for 'sanitary' purposes. This, at least locally, prompted outrage and discussion about the significance an importance of these artefacts and their place in BiH today. This paper will show that persons and objects excavated are not disparate in significance but that their symbolic importance is intertwined and equally powerful.

Biological citizenship and death in Mexico

Author: Ernesto Schwartz-Marin (Durham)  email

Short Abstract

New modes of citizenship are emerging in spaces riddled by lack of rule of law and extreme violence that bring new engagements with techno-science and new of rights and duties towards the dead and the disappeared, made possible through the strategic mobilization of the biology of the living.

Long Abstract

Beneath the tides of dead bodies piling in morgues, mass media, cemeteries and clandestine graves in Mexico, a new mode of citizenship is taking place. New subjectivities and citizens are being born amidst violence, grief and lack of punishment. Mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers who were previously exclusively dedicated to office jobs, study, commerce and rural activities are now the heads of intensive care units, experimental forensic research units, and heads of community police. This paper brings forth the first ethnographic encounters with the experiences of these new citizens and resilient subjects, who are striving to make their 'Right to the Truth' a reality. By locating these experiences in the wider literature of biopolitics, citizenship and the biosciences I aim to bring forth to the radical differences and novel avenues that the Mexican experience can bring to the discussion about the relationships between science and human rights. For more than a decade the corpus of literature on biological citizenship has been overly centred in the exploration of Europe and the US, mostly drawing on biomedicine and patient groups case studies. By looking at death as the axis of analysis we are opening a new terrain of theoretical and ethnographic exploration in which the duties to the (presumably) dead and the bodies of the living are irremediably entangled (many times in the form of DNA), and thus produce modes of existence and economies of hope in need of theoretical and empirical exploration.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.