Online Supersleuths There’s an estimated 40,000 unidentified human remains in the United States. When writer Deborah Halber heard this figure, she did some research and discovered a thriving community of internet sleuths who spend hours trying to attach names to these John and Jane Does.
Brooke Gladstone, On the Media (July 12, 2014)
WNYC’s radio programme, On the Media, has been an invaluable resource for the Death Reference Desk these past five years. I never created an ‘On the Media’ tag, but I know that I’ve used its shows a number of times.
This week is a great example of the stories that OTM runs. Brooke Gladstone interviews Deborah Halber about her book Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases and the volunteers who work on unsolved and cold cases involving unidentified human remains.
I have to imagine that some of Death Ref’s regulars, particularly the librarians, might already know about this online crime solving.
Feel free to send the Death Reference Desk examples of cases that were helped and/or solved through online volunteers.
Nothing Focuses The Mind Like The Ultimate Deadline: Death
A Swedish inventor came up with a wristwatch that counts down the seconds left in your life. He calls it “the happiness watch” because he thinks living with the reality of one’s mortality can enhance how we value our lives.
Lulu Miller, National Public Radio (December 31, 2013)
At the very end of last year, National Public Radio ran a story by Lulu Miller about a watch that can ‘predict’ when you’re going to die.
It’s a clever invention that is obviously geared towards cultivating conversations about death and dying as opposed to locking-in a termination date.
I’m not sure that you need a watch to get those discussions rolling, but I’m open to all possibilities.
The wonder of producing the 31 Days of Death is that it’s possible to pull stories from the files that never made it to the Death Reference Desk for numerous reasons.
The io9 blog and news site (motto: We Come from the Future) is a reliable and entertaining source for science fiction, fantasy, technology, and scientific research information.
Every once in a while, a death related question or story pops up. A lot of the articles focus on radical life extension, which is to be expected.
The most recent death listing was different enough that I decided to feature it today on Death Ref.
Charlie Jane Anders asks a straight-forward but really intriguing question: Which Science Fiction or Fantasy book do you want read at your funeral? I’ll add in Memorial Service in case you don’t have a standard funeral.
Since my early teen years, the introduction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams was something I wanted read at my funeral. In case you’re wondering, I really did think about these kinds of questions when I 13. I was a walking Judy Blume character.
After thinking more about different options, I came back to a perennial death soliloquy favourite. The problem, however, is that it’s in a film. I’m cheating. I admit it.
I would be Andreia’s Ph.D. Supervisor in Bath and I really want to work with her.
Here’s the rub and hence the fundraising campaign: Andreia received a scholarship from the University of Bath but it doesn’t cover everything. She needs to raise £8,000 (which is just under $14,000) in order to cover some University fees and, most importantly, afford her Visa to study in the UK.
As a non-UK citizen who works in England, I can tell you that Visas are extremely expensive to procure. I’ve spent thousands of both pounds and dollars over the years on Visas. And hours filling out forms.
Andreia isn’t letting the need for additional funding dissuade her from starting her studies. Indeed, her resolve to begin the Ph.D. seems to only get stronger with each passing day.
One of the only ways Andreia has been able to raise the necessary funds is through a crowdfunding website called Student Funder. It’s a legit company and I think her campaign is worth supporting.
Andreia has FIVE DAYS left to raise the £8,000. She’s currently at £3,455.
So anyone and everyone– think about making a donation. It’s a worthwhile cause. I will also make sure that Andreia periodically updates the Death Reference Deask on her studies.
If you click here you will go directly to Andreia’s fundraising page.
I have also added in Andreia’s own appeal for funding and a video of support that I created.
My name is Andreia and I’m a 28 year old journalist and anthropologist from Brazil and since 2008 I have been studying the ways social networks and social media help us deal with death and dying. I have presented a research project and have been accepted for a PhD at the Social and Policy Sciences Department at the University of Bath. My research is about Virtual Wakes.
What is that?
A wake is a ritual where the family and friends of a deceased accompanies the body before it’s buried or cremated. The virtual wake is a live broadcasting of that very moment, and was created so that the ones who could not attend the wake itself can be present with the helping of new communications technology. That moment can be shared with those who never knew the deceased, so my research will be a qualitative study of how the Virtual Wakes can help us deal with death and dying, deepening work I started in 2011.
I am deeply in love with my research area, which only continues to fascinate me every day. In addition, I desire to become a professor in the future and this PhD has been my priority since 2012. Death is a fascinating topic and I am extremely interested in learning how we have been dealing with it in different aspects and eras – and what ways we will come up with in the future.
In 2011 I was awarded a scholarship to complete my masters in Brazil and I have attended, chaired and coordinated sessions in several death-related academic conferences in Argentina, Romania, Austria, England, Chile and Brazil. My master’s thesis was awarded with Praise and Distinction. Bath has awarded me a 75% discount scholarship on the tuition fees but, despite
this generous help, I am still lacking the final £8,000 to pay my fees and gain my visa.
That’s why I have set up this StudentFunder campaign and ask sincerely for your kind support.
Please do take me up on the perks outlined to the right so I can show my appreciation to you, my supporters.
It was inevitable, I suppose. At a certain point early 21st-century humans would begin doing things with computer technology that their long lost late 20th-century cousins did roughly twenty years earlier.
And lo, it has come to pass with death and the internet.
The New York Times has a Fashion & Style feature on how the kids are using the world wide web to discuss death, loss, the end-of-life, grieving, etc.
Anytime the Grey Lady describes something as fashionable then it’s almost certainly dead. Irony of ironies, given the article’s subject.
Using the internet, the web, computers, digital technology, communication technology writ large to discuss death, loss, the end-of-life, grieving, etc. is not new. Indeed, humans have been using the interweb to discuss death since the early days of html and Netscape.
We need to go back in time now, to a long-forgotten-about age when people still said Information Superhighway without irony or smirking. That’s right, we’re headed back to the mid-1990s.
As soon as the ‘web’ became a viable entity, largely because of the browsers Mosaic and then Netscape, individual users began creating websites about death.
It is also important to point out that everything happening in the late 20th-century also built on technology used during the 19th-century (e.g., telegraph communication, photography, rail transport, etc.) but I’ll stick with the 1990’s for now.
In 1996, a television show called the Internet Cafe began a run on American Public Television. The programme was later re-named the Net Cafe and it lasted until 2002. Think of it as the paleo-YouTube.
Two years into the Internet Cafe’s existence, on June 26, 1998 (historical aside: Bill Clinton wouldn’t be impeached until December 19, 1998 but most television footage was about the Starr Report), it aired a programme called Grim Reaper Web Sites.
As the title suggests, the entire show examines how people are using the world wide web to discuss a long list of death topics and issues. My particular favourite is the guy who creates a memorial website for Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia.
The moral of our time-traveling tale is this: We humans began using the internet and web as soon as we could to discuss death. Why? Because that’s what we do with all communication technology. The technology will always change but death itself remains predictably guaranteed and discussed.
But don’t take my word for it, you can WATCH this episode of the Internet Cafe because of the always wonderful Internet Archive.
I also embedded the show at the bottom of the page.
The 1990’s live dude.
And if you’re interested in the history (both old and new) of death and technology then check out Death Ref’s Death + Technology page.
I’ll be giving a talk on these death technology issues (and other things) at the upcoming UK Death Salon.
One final point. In another twenty or thirty years I firmly believe that an intrepid reporter for the New York Times will write an article about whatever technology exists at that time (our computer overlords, most likely) and how the kids are using it to discuss death.
Radiolab co-host, Robert Krulwich, posted a fascinating piece on a mathematical approach to determining when a person might die. Krulwich explains how he first picked up this topic:
A few years ago, physicist Brian Skinner asked himself: What are the odds I will die in the next year? He was 25. What got him wondering about this, I have no idea, but, hey, it’s something everybody asks. When I can’t wedge my dental floss between my two front teeth, I ask it, too. So Brian looked up the answer — there are tables for this kind of thing — and what he discovered is interesting. Very interesting. Even mysterious.
It turns out that a fascinating 8-year rule emerges for most human lifespans. I will let you read all about it.
I watched the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr link roll across the internet this week and after seeing the images I immediately knew what was going to happen. People would complain about how the kids today were so self-absorbed that civilisation was near its collapse and how today’s youth don’t have any respect. I also knew that after this immediate condemnation, another group of voices would rise up to support the forsaken youth.
And this, Death Ref faithful, is exactly what happened.
But then, as should always be expected, another group of people took a more nuanced stand per the Selfies.
My good friend Caitlin Doughty at the Order of the Good Death wrote a strong defense of the kids on Jezebel and I mostly agree with her thoughts on the images. Where I disagree with Cailin is in arguing that these images represent a broader social disengagement with the reality of death. If anything, these photos show young people engaging with death, and doing so with a specific language that they’ve developed.
We humans invented all of our human death rituals. As a result, this means that all death rituals are constantly being changed, altered, and turned into hybrids. There is nothing innate about any ritual (given its human construction) so I think that it’s important to say that I would be more surprised if young people weren’t taking Selfies at funerals. This is the world they know but that doesn’t mean that today’s youth somehow lack any education about death.
Ironically enough, the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr page probably caused thousands more people to discuss actual death and funerals this week because of its supposedly disrespectful tone. Maybe, just maybe, the kids beat the adults at their own ‘We NEED to talk about death game.’
Katy Waldman at Slate took a wise step and waited a few days before writing anything. She presents a good critique of responses to the images but also brings everything back to the kids using the photographs as forms of grieving. I agree with this point and I kept waiting for someone to roll out a broader discussion about the relationship between photography and death.
Photography has a long standing relationship with funerals, especially in America. The camera phone is only the most recent example of a technology we humans use to capture images at funerals. Another way of looking at these photos is this– what else would anyone in the First World expect teenagers to do with their camera phones at funerals? Megan Garberoct at The Atlantic wrote an uncannily timed article on 19th century postmortem photography and the ability of Victorian era photographers to capture ‘Sprit’ images with their cameras.
But more than the photos themselves, it seems that the people criticising the kids just don’t like the technology involved, i.e., the camera phone that produced the self-taken image.
Here, then, is the key lesson for everyone loving to hate and hating to love the Selfies at Funerals: We humans remain deeply conflicted when mixing all forms of technology with death.
The great science fiction writer Douglas Adams (who died far too young) made the following observation about humans and technology in The Salmon of Doubt:
I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
Given that my own research in the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society examines how technology and death intermingle all the time, I want to let everyone know that Selfies at Funerals represent only the beginning of a much longer future. We should already be asking ourselves what happens when a person wearing a computing machine, such as Google Glass, captures images and video at a funeral. Is a line being crossed there and why? How? I ask these questions, because it is going to happen and happen soon.
Just remember, and not so long ago, the idea of using the internet for anything to do with death seemed inappropriate. So did playing pre-recorded music on a CD (especially loud rock and roll music), having mourners draw or paint on a coffin, or even choosing to be to cremated.
What we humans forget is that death’s persistence means that we will persistently invent new kinds of death rituals. No ritual lives forever. Will Coldwell’s Guardian article on Dark Tourism highlights how easily the very idea of established and appropriate ‘death rituals’ can be changed.
Earlier this year, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror television series ran an episode called Be Right Back that effectively dramatised how the not-to-distant future might offer new kinds of technology for human grieving. Here is the show’s description:
Martha and Ash are a young couple who move to a remote cottage. The day after the move, Ash is killed, returning the hire van. At the funeral, Martha’s friend Sarah tells her about a new service that lets people stay in touch with the deceased. By using all his past online communications and social media profiles, a new ‘Ash’ can be created. Martha is disgusted by the concept but then in a confused and lonely state she decides to talk to ‘him’…
Trust me when I say that if the technology imagined in Black Mirror suddenly appeared, the Selfies at Funerals shock and outrage would quickly wash away into the sea of human memory.
So where does this week take us? It’s hard to say, because I have a feeling most people have already forgotten about the Selfies at Funerals and moved on to other more pressing issues.
But I do think that it is now time to officially launch a new Death Reference Desk rule about death and technology. To wit:
The Death Ref Technology Law: Any use of new technology that involves death, dying, and/or the dead body will be simultaneously rejected as a breakdown in human civility as well as embraced as an innovative turn for human grieving.
Or, as my friend Max summed up the situation on Facebook:
I was disgusted by this until I remembered I took a selfie at the last funeral I went to. Now I’m okay with it.
Death Ref’s good friend Joanna Ebenstein, who runs the Morbid Anatomy blog and benevolent empire in Brooklyn, NY, asked me if I would write a guest blog post for her new book on the 19th century British taxidermist Walter Potter. If you don’t know Walter Potter’s work, but like taxidermy, then you really must look him up. Joanna and Walter Potter expert Pat Morris have put together a new book called Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy.
Walter Potter is known (and a little infamous, in a late-Victorian kind of way) for his anthropomorphic taxidermy in which dead kittens (for example) have a tea party. There is significantly more to say about all of Potter’s taxidermy work, but I focused on a personal favourite The Death and Burial of Cock Robin.
Dying with Dignity and the Final Word on Her Life
by Michael Winerip, New York Times (August 05, 2013)
Those closest to Jane Lotter recalled her as spunky, self-aware and wise beyond her 60 years. So when she told her family that she planned to write her own obituary, they weren’t surprised.
by Frank Bruni, New York Times (August 11, 2013)
The assisted-suicide prosecution of a Pennsylvania woman who allegedly gave her father the morphine he requested seems both imprudent and inhumane.
Some Further Articles on the Pew Report Slate: Fear of Immortality
Americans don’t want to extend their declining years. But what if you could stay young?
by William Saletan, Slate (August 06, 2013)
The Atlantic: Cheating death and being okay with God
Among the widespread coverage of the Pew Research report on radical life extension was this piece in The Atlantic, which highlights the fact that one-in-four Americans believe that, by the year 2050, the average person will live to be at least 120. The article also looks at some religious leaders’ reactions to that possibility.
Over the last few weeks, a series of death-related articles overlapped. One series of stories focused on a recent Pew Research Center report on Life Extension. The other stories discussed assisted dying. The overlap was interesting because if and when radical (or even medium-ish) life extension is achieved, then an entirely new kind of assisted dying debate will ensue.
For those not up to speed on the life extension arguments, I suggest reading through the Pew materials. What’s key with any plausible life extension model is that it increases human lifespan while significantly decreasing (or stopping) human ageing. In other words, if you live to be 500 years old, you do not want a body that is physically 500 years old. For most life extension arguments to succeed, then the human bodies biological systems will have to be augmented or changed to prevent ageing.
Assisted dying and suicide debates have followed alongside life extension discussions since individuals with radically longer life-spans (where physical ageing is stopped) may choose to simply end their lives as opposed to waiting another 100 years for death.
These are all speculative points, but worth contemplating now as really important thought experiments.
Here is another way to think about the connections between human mortality, death, and ageing. All of the health problems we humans associate today with old age (arthritis, cancer, alzheimer’s disease and dementia in particular) might also be ways of saying ‘ageing.’
So, if you want to live forever then you better stop the body’s physical breakdown, otherwise death will become preferable to life at all costs.
Future Death. Future Dead Bodies. Future Cemeteries
Illustrated lecture by Dr. John Troyer, Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath
20th June 2013
Doors at 6:30 / Talk begins at 7:00 pm
Ticket price £7
The Last Tuesday Society at 11 Mare Street, London, E8 4RP
This coming Thursday, June 20, 2013 I’m giving a public talk for the Morbid Anatomy Library and the Last Tuesday Society in London. The Morbid Anatomy Library talks are normally located in the lovely Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn (don’t pay any attention its Superfund site classification) but its Librarian-in-Chief Joanna Ebenstein is currently in London to organise this lecture series.
Joanna has been a good friend to the Death Reference Desk and one of our earliest supporters. Indeed, the very first Morbid Anatomy talk that I ever gave (in Brooklyn) was in July 2009. That was the same month and year that Death Ref launched.
It’s been an adventurous four years.
So come to this talk on Thursday if you can or, even better, go to one of the many other fantastic talks curated by Joanna at the Last Tuesday Society.
You will not be disappointed.
Future Death. Future Dead Bodies. Future Cemeteries
Illustrated lecture by Dr. John Troyer, Deputy Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath
20th June 2013
Doors at 6:30 / Talk begins at 7:00 pm
Ticket price £7
Approximately 1500 people die every day across the United Kingdom, roughly one person a minute. And unless you are a person who works in a profession connected to the dying, chances are good you rarely (if ever) see any of these 1500 dead bodies. More importantly– do you and your next of kin know what you want done with your dead body when you die? In the future, of course, since it’s easier to think that way. Dr. John Troyer, from the Centre for Death & Society, University of Bath, will discuss three kinds of postmortem futures: Future Death, Future Dead Bodies, and Future Cemeteries. Central to these Futures is the human corpse and its use in new forms of body disposal technology, digital technology platforms, and definitions of death.
Dr John Troyer
Dr. John Troyer is the Deputy Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. His interdisciplinary research focuses on contemporary memorialisation practices, concepts of spatial historiography, and the dead body?s relationship with technology. Dr. Troyer is also a theatre director and installation artist with extensive experience in site-specific performance across the United States and Europe. He is a co-founder of the Death Reference Desk website (http://www.deathreferencedesk.org) and a frequent commentator for the BBC. His forthcoming book, Technologies of the Human Corpse (published by the University of North Carolina Press), will appear in 2013.
The Last Tuesday Society is honoured to house this exhibition and lecture series cultivated in collaboration with Joanna Ebenstein of the rightfully venerated ‘Morbid Anatomy’ Library, Museum & Blog.
Talks take place at The Last Tuesday Society at 11 Mare Street, London, E8 4RP
The relationship between death and technology is as old as human civilisation; from cenotaph to facebook memorial, industries have been built on our desire to remember and be remembered. Technology now enables us to create spine-chilling immersive experiences; allowing us to embody the worlds of our ancestors, enter our ghost stories and even plan a little post-mortem haunting ourselves. We want to move the conversation beyond discussions of data legacy to ask whether we can engender a new form of history, one that allows us to interact with the dead.
Bringing together experts in human remains, memorialisation and new technology this Panel will explore our relationship with mortality in a digital age. The discussion will draw on recent projects which have used new technology to augment cemeteries, populate historic sites with ghosts of their past and instigate twitter conversations with a 1,610 year old woman.