As technology advances, the opportunities to challenge our natural human limits abound, and it begins to seem plausible that in future we may even be able to cheat death itself. Until that becomes a (distant) reality, humans continue to ritualise the process of saying goodbye in both traditional and less traditional ways – immortalising loved ones through novel inventions and cherished keepsakes. Here we explore how commemoration is changing, and in an age where so much of life is lived online, ponder the question of what happens, or doesn’t happen, to our digital presence when we pass away? Here are the drivers and innovations dealing with death and its aftermath:
Typically a sensitive topic of conversation, many are already (somewhat ironically) discussing their exit strategies on social media: death is trending via the #burymeinthis hashtag, used when people fall so much in love with an outfit (or sometimes even food) that they claim it appropriate burial attire. More often than not, the clothes hashtagged are casual and comfy, bath robes and baggy tshirts proliferate – moving away from the traditional ‘Sunday best’ burial attire of yesteryear.
This break from ritual is reflected in increasingly creative ways to commemorate the dead. There is no longer “one death fits all”, and we can be as unique in dying as in living to ensure we are remembered – whether it be wearing something “you” at burial, playing on through the sound of a record or requesting to be worn by someone else….
Life Gems make high quality diamonds from ashes, so that relatives can wear their lost family member next to their heart forever. The process takes six to nine months, and can also be done for those who have chosen burial by taking the carbon in a lock of hair. Andvinly is a company that creates commemorative vinyl with ashes pressed into the phonographic disc. The record can be cut with music and voice recordings, as chosen by the commissioner. This of course alters the sound of the record with some additional graininess, but many consider it a moving tribute to the deceased, and a physical way for them to live on through sound. Similarly, Bios Urn sees its fully biodegradable, organic urns as a “catalyst for life”. Respectful of the environment in every way possible, they are designed for planting trees in ashes. The company also provides Bios Incubes, which allow the urn to be planted indoors to keep the growing trees physically close.
Death do not us part, thanks to data
Perhaps for some, the idea of living on in this digital age is a reassuring one – we can still talk to those we miss. It is an idea explored by the makers of Replika, an app through which users talk to a chatbot that mirrors their conversation. It was designed after its founder, Eugenia Kuyda, lost her best friend in a car accident. She longed for conversations with him, and their regular text exchanges, so began to build a virtual version of him. Using an SMS interface, Replika asks questions about the user’s interests and opinions, mimicking a real-life conversation with a friend. As you interact with it, it picks up on your turns of phrase, your tastes, and your temperament – using your own messages to map your personality and create a kind of digital avatar. Although for many users it feels as if they are creating the perfect best friend, they are in fact recreating themselves, or as Eugenia says “a digital footprint of your personality”.
Staying close and making memories
Memories of people and times past are precious commodities. And whilst death should not be tactlessly touted as a commercial opportunity, brands can help us to make memories by living life to the full. Fond thoughts of those who have gone do not have to remain internalised in our minds, but can be made physical or even digitised – companions that stay with us. Our Total Recall trend considers the ability of individuals to access information that they know they have forgotten – imagine a service that allows us to retrieve specific memories with one person, like a directory, or an interactive map of your relationship. Perhaps artificial intelligence, rather than forgotten social media profiles, will allow us all to continue living in some form, even before science and medicine defeat the inevitability of our final journey.
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