Western funeral traditions have separated life from death, creating rigid timelines and rituals that have stigmatized the discussion of death and mourning. The bereaved are utilizing digital tools to express the expectations dictated by society while also serving personal needs to maintain relational continuity with the deceased. This project seeks to use storytelling and digital tools to resurrect the intimacy and personalization of dying, deathcare, and bereavement to encourage reform in the funeral industry and raise awareness on alternative approaches to expressing grief.
The business of dying used to be personal. Prior to the Civil War, most Americans died in their homes, surrounded by their families—an end considered to be “the good death” . Funerals transitioned to be held outside the home during the boom of urbanization in the 1920s [1, 2]. Increasingly, people became distanced from the deceased, and by the 1960s, two-thirds of deaths occurred in hospitals, sequestered and removed from the affected family. Popular American funeral practices often provide little to no time with the body before embalmment or cremation, and immediate friends and family are given only a few hours during visitation to grieve alongside their loved one’s remains, often in the eyes of the “public”. This system creates stress and pressure for the bereaved to act within accepted behavioral norms [2, 3]. In addition to societal expectations placed on the bereaved, studies indicate some bereaved individuals lack an understanding of their personal grieving style, which can lead to anxiety and struggling with their loss because they believe their grief is not normal .
In American culture, death is no longer open for discussion, and the bereaved lack the necessary tools and resources for processing death and facing their own mortality. With this project, I seek to create a more intimate, customized deathcare experience to support bereaved individuals, identify digital tools we can leverage to aid the bereaved, and ultimately reduce the stigma of discussing death.
Mourning Behavior on the Internet
Research has confirmed that bereaved individuals are using social media and other computer-mediated communication channels to continue relational bonds with the deceased [3, 5, 6, 9]. This includes building memorial websites, writing on message boards, using Facebook to post on the deceased’s walls, as well as sharing photos of grief and emotion on Instagram. Maintaining relational continuity with the deceased, whether by communication or other means, helps the bereaved make sense of their loss and clarify their identity/place in the world without their loved one [3, 5].
Many studies note that the bereaved use social channels to speak directly to the deceased [3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9]. This is an example of “transcorporeal communication” (TcC), which is defined as communication directed at the deceased. Researchers posit that TcC is a positive way to continue bonds and manage grief . This opposes the traditional Western thought that grief is a finite experience that one can overcome only when the individual cuts bonds with the deceased and seeks to “move on” . This approach to death fails the bereaved because grief does not progress in a linear fashion; individuals might feel fine one moment and then swallowed by emotional unrest in the next. Using digital tools for remediating grief provides a place for grief anytime of the day and creates space for expressing sudden feelings of sorrow and sadness .
Limitations of Research
While there is plenty of literature on the subject of mourning in the 21st century, it is not without its limitations of scope. Research has been done to classify the types of posts being shared on social media, but it is still unclear if continuing bonds with the deceased with social media/technology actually helps during bereavement and further stages of grief [3, 9]. Research that has tested the impact of digital grieving remediation tools focused only on individuals who experienced “expected” deaths (elderly, disease), and those who experienced unexpected deaths (death of children, suicides, fatal accidents) were ineligible for the study . Other studies focused their research only on younger audiences between the ages of 18-32, forgoing the grieving experiences of older social media users . Death is a universal experience, and technology affects more than just millennial audiences, so there is opportunity to expand the scope and focus of research surrounding death and digital tools.
Global Death Rituals
There are examples of continuing bonds within non-digital death rituals around the world. Consider Dia de los Muertos, where families create elaborate altars to honor the dead to welcome their spirits back home . Another example is the after-death care practiced by Torajans in Indonesia, where funerals are often delayed for weeks or months and the deceased’s bodies are regularly exhumed, cleaned and redressed . Grief over the loss of a loved one still exists in all these cultures, but death is not the end to a connection or relationship. These are only two examples of global death rituals, but they inspire me to ask, what customs could we adopt to help create the Western response to death more positive?
In Pursuit of a “Better” Death
Despite the constraints that exist among Western mourning rituals, there is evidence that attitudes toward death are shifting. The market for “death doulas”, non-medical professionals who prepare the terminally ill for death, has grown in recent years, suggesting that Americans are in search of a more personalized, end-of-life journey . Death doulas provide companionship and spiritual guidance to those who are dying as well as their families. The doulas not only assist in wrapping up their client’s personal affairs and documents, but may also arrange deathbed vigils, help with funeral arrangements, and provide deathcare such as cleaning and dressing the body after their client has expired.
Cremation has outpaced burials in popularity for the last three consecutive years in the United States, and the National Funeral Directors Association predicts the national cremation rate will be 80% by 2035 . There has also been a rise in requests for “green funerals”, where bodies are not embalmed and buried in biodegradable shrouds directly in the ground, and home funerals, a return to what was once considered normal and expected for deathcare . Home funerals present unique challenges as certain state laws require the involvement of a licensed funeral director to provide death certificates, and some hospitals prohibit releasing the body to the care of an immediate family member. Proponents of reform in the funeral industry help families in conducting home funerals, transporting the body from the hospital and ultimately to its final resting place, and assisting with the cleaning and preparation the body for a home viewing without the use of embalming chemicals [1, 2].
Building off of these examples of reform, this project intends to dispel myths about deathcare in America and raise awareness on alternative ways to honor the dead and continue relational bonds with the deceased. My primary research questions include:
How can approaching death differently change our grief experience?
What kind of tool or resources do individuals need to understand their grieving style?
Does using computer mediated communication channels to continue bonds with the deceased help reconcile grief?
Would end-of-life planning and death meditation reduce anxiety about one's mortality?
While I continue to refine my medium, my project will be rooted in storytelling; I want to pull focus onto deathcare rituals and mourning styles by illuminating alternative approaches and creating opportunity for honest dialogue about the isolation and obscurity that shrouds death and grieving. This may be through experimental documentary or an immersive, exploratory experience. One idea I want to pursue is an experimental grieving space that rejects the limitations and stress the funeral industry places on the bereaved at their most vulnerable time. Pulling from the services provided by death doulas and practices of other cultures, this space will provide therapeutic release for individuals experiencing anxiety about death or those processing a recent death of a loved one.
Challenges and Considerations
Culture, heritage and religious beliefs can influence how a person reacts to death, and although these are important factors to consider, they are currently out of scope for this project. I plan to focus on secular matters of the death industry, though I may choose to fold in certain rituals or traditions from other cultures and religions in and outside the United States into my solution.
Due to the sensitive nature of this project, it is also of the utmost importance to take extra care in my research and leverage external expertise on deathcare and grief in order to provide the right tools and advice for my target audience.
1. Libby Copeland. 2015. Who Owns the Dead? New Repub. (2015). Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/122130/who-owns-dead
2. Caitlin Doughty. 2017. From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death (First Edit ed.). W.W. Norton & Company, New York.
3. Jocelyn M. Degroot. 2012. Maintaining Relational Continuity with the Deceased on Facebook. OMEGA - J. Death Dying 65, 3 (2012), 195–212. DOI:https://doi.org/10.2190/OM.65.3.c
4. Kristen Fischer. 2018. How ‘Death Doulas’ Can Help People at the End of Their Life. Heathline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/how-death-doulas-can-help-people-at-the-end-of-their-life#1
5. Melissa D. Irwin. 2015. Mourning 2.0-Continuing
Bonds between the Living and the Dead on Facebook. Omega (United States). DOI:https://doi.org/10.1177/0030222815574830
6. Michael J. Egnoto, Joseph M. Sirianni, Christopher R. Ortega, and Michael Stefanone. 2014. Death on the Digital Landscape: A Preliminary Investigation into the Grief Process and Motivations behind Participation in the Online Memoriam. OMEGA - J. Death Dying 69, 3 (2014), 283–304. DOI:https://doi.org/10.2190/OM.69.3.d
7. Sally A. Dominick, A. Blair Irvine, Natasha Beauchamp, John R. Seeley, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Kenneth J. Doka, and George A. Bonanno. 2010. An Internet Tool to Normalize Grief. OMEGA - J. Death Dying 60, 1 (2010), 71–87. DOI:https://doi.org/10.2190/OM.60.1.d
8. Tony Walter, Rachid Hourizi, Wendy Moncur, and Stacey Pitsillides. 2012. Does the Internet Change How We Die and Mourn? Overview and Analysis. OMEGA - J. Death Dying 64, 4 (2012), 275–302. DOI:https://doi.org/10.2190/OM.64.4.a
9. Erin Willis and Patrick Ferrucci. 2017. Mourning and Grief on Facebook: An Examination of Motivations for Interacting With the Deceased. Omega (United States) 76 (2), (2017), 122–140. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1177/0030222816688284
10. 2018. Cremation on the Rise: NFDA Predicts the National Cremation Rate Will Climb by a Third Within 20 Years. Natl. Funer. Dir. Assoc. (2018).