‘An interesting question about digital memorials is how they stack up against older practices environmentally,’ says Dr Fraser Allison, a member of the DeathTech Research Team at the University of Melbourne. ‘Preserving someone’s likeness as a digital avatar and transmitting that to their family is probably more sustainable than burying them in a cemetery and having their family drive to visit. But the ultimate challenge for both digital and physical memorials is how long future generations should be obliged to preserve them. Many people want memorials to last indefinitely, long after everyone who knew the person has passed away, but that doesn’t have to be the case. In any case, I think our descendants are likely to have bigger problems to worry about than keeping great-grandfather’s AI avatar backed up.’
Given that we’ve coped without ‘death tech’ for the entirety of human history, it is reasonable to ask what problem it’s actually solving – particularly when potential future iterations seem to pose so many knotty problems. But our desires to keep the memories of the deceased alive and not be forgotten ourselves are two strong emotional levers. ‘While traditionally people would look back at your life and remember you at your funeral, you’re now getting a more active role in preparing your legacy,’ says Schillmöller. ‘And it’s a kind of self-therapy, a gift to yourself to look back and say, well, this is what I’ve done, these are the things I remember.’
Of course, not everyone is keen to recount their experiences. While my father typed out his life story a few years ago and shared it enthusiastically with his family, my mother is more reticent, and the prospect of talking to an app probably wouldn’t appeal to her.
‘It did take some work to persuade my mother,’ says Catherine. It’s a hard sell to say, “Hey, I’d like you to do this so that after you die, I can listen to your voice.” I had to emphasize that this is really something for her granddaughter. But afterwards she wrote to me and she said that despite her initial misgivings, it was a wonderful experience. Lots of laughter, and some tears.’
Technology firms seem keen to smooth out every discomfort we might possibly have as humans, but with grief, tech comes up against its ultimate challenge. ‘No technology can change the basic facts about death, and I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where a replica of a dead person is convincing enough to dislodge the feeling that they’re gone,’ says Allison.
Perhaps that’s a good thing. As strange as it seems, death frames our lives and gives them meaning. Immortality, as nice as it might sound, will remain a dream that’s not really worth striving for.
Illustrations by Nicholas Kempton
Analogue vs digital grieving: how tech has already changed the way we mourn
By Cariad Lloyd, host of the Griefcast podcast
Where are we now with grief? How does grief fit into our digital world? Has it been changed by the vastness of the internet or by the fact that a social media profile can still live after someone has gone? What does it mean to grieve for someone in the age of death trolls, Facebook memorials?
I started becoming aware of this new world of grief through Griefcast, the podcast I started in 2016, which examines grief and death. ‘Digital grievers’ would casually invite me to look at their phone screen to show me their dead person’s photo as if this were normal. I say this as only I, an analogue griever, dear.
My dad died in 1998, before the internet was the world we lived in, five months before Google was created, six years before Facebook, seven years before YouTube, [so] my grief is not stored in the digital sphere. For me, the objects and memories that keep my dad present only have a physical presence – a Polaroid of me on his shoulders, a landline phone bill with ‘Let’s Discuss! Dad x’ written in felt-tip pen. My grief is old-fashioned, mechanical, outdated. If you google my dad’s name, nothing comes up. I can’t read his texts or listen to voicemails. His voice is a foreign country; they record things differently there.