Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Death + the Web

Death Ref heads to South by Southwest (SxSW) in Texas

Platforms for Haunting: The Talking Dead
South by Southwest Interactive media conference
Saturday, March 9
5:00PM – 6:00PM
Radisson Town Lake
Town Lake Ballroom
111 E Cesar Chavez

The Death Reference Desk is headed to the 2013 South by Southwest (SxSW) Interactive media conference in Austin, Texas.

Doing our best to keep Austin weird!

Death Ref is part of a panel, Platforms for Haunting: The Talking Dead, on death, technology, the dead body and the future relationships of all these things. Same old same old, really. Death Ref John’s Future Cemetery project will also be involved.

Here is the panel’s description so that everyone can see what they’re missing (or seeing– if you’re at SxSW):

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.

Updates about SxSW will appear here on the Death Ref blog, on Death Ref’s Facebook page and on the Twitter Feed of Death!

The Twitter feeds to watch are: @DeathRef, #SxSW, #haunting, @FutureCemetery, and @ReactHub

Anyone in Austin should come on up and say howdy!

And then after Death Ref is done with the SxSW panel, we’re all going to the Alamo’s basement to look for our stolen bicycle.

Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture Death + the Web

Dumb Ways to Die…the Public Service Announcement

Dumb Ways to Die
by John Mescall for Metro Trains Melbourne (2012)


Dumb Ways to Die: Australian rail company’s public safety warning video
The Guardian (November 29, 2012)

There are many reasons to admire Australians, especially their collective love for all things dark, sinister, and macabre.

But always with a smile. And maybe a Foster’s. Possibly a wombat.

So the Dumb Ways to Die song and video by John Mescall for Metro Trains Melbourne comes as little surprise:

The animated ditty is also something of an internet phenomena, and the Death Reference Desk has been following its rapid ascent.

Watch Mescall explain the idea for Dumb Ways to Die:

You can also watch the song with the lyrics underneath (not available in all countries):

Hat tip to Charles Darwin.

Cemeteries Death + Technology Death + the Web Eco-Death

Future Death. Future Dead Bodies. Future Cemeteries. TEDx Talk by John Troyer

Future Death. Future Dead Bodies. Future Cemeteries
John Troyer, TEDxBristol Talk (September 15, 2012)

On September 15, 2012 I was one of the TEDxBristol speakers. The TEDxBristol 2012 theme was Future Shock, so I took the opportunity to discuss three of my favorite topics: Future Death, Future Dead Bodies, and Future Cemeteries.

The entire TEDx event was organized exceptionally well, and I was impressed by all the speakers. I usually count on at least one speaker who completely blows it and becomes that guy (because it’s almost always one of the male speakers) so that I can be relieved that I wasn’t that guy. But no.

 John Troyer using officially recognizable TED talk hand gestures

John Troyer using officially recognizable TED talk hand gestures

What really stands out for me from the day is the live drawing being done by artist Nat Al-Tahhan as each of us spoke. Nat drew images reflecting our talks, while we spoke, and she nailed the day down. I love the images. You can see them here.

I’m fairly certain that Death Ref readers can determine when I spoke, based only on the drawings.

The video of my talk is now up and you can watch it on YouTube here or above.

Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Death + the Web

TEDxBristol Talk by Death Ref’s own John Troyer

TEDx Speaker Q&A: Dr John Troyer, Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath
MSHED Bristol (Saturday, September 15, 2012)

A quick post about a TEDxBristol talk that I’m giving on Saturday, September 15 in Bristol. The TEDxBristol theme this year is Future Shock so I’m talking about Future Death * Future Dead Bodies * Future Cemeteries.

My talk could also be called A Brief Review of Hilarious Articles from the Death Reference Desk .

Many thanks to the TEDxBristol organizers for inviting me.

If the talk is uploaded to the interwebs then I’ll post it on the DRD.

Here is my Q&A for the TED organizers.

Where does your story begin?

My story begins in a small town in western Wisconsin. Hudson, Wisconsin. Not much else to say really.


Tell us two quirky things about yourself

My father is funeral director. And even though I’m a person with tattoos, most people would not see me as a tattooed person.


Why did you want to be involved in TEDxBristol?

When TED asks you for a favour, you never say no.


What will you be talking about at TEDxBristol?

Future technologies that will impact death, the dead body, and cemeteries. But my talk is also about how these technologies represent the shock of the old, and are not entirely new.


What would you like people to take away from your talk?

I want people to answer two questions: What do you want done with your body when you die? And, have you explained these wishes to your next-of-kin?


What is your favourite TED talk and why?

Jae Rhim Lee’s Mushroom Burial Suit. Contemporary dead body disposal is entirely about pursuing innovations in human decomposition. Indeed, understanding the dead human body as organic biomass is the future of final disposition technologies.

Cemeteries Death + Art / Architecture Death + Technology Death + the Web

A Brief Glimpse into the Future Cemetery.

The Future Cemetery Project is sneaking up behind you.

Right now.

You. I. We all know that death is the future

Follow the Future Cemetery here.

And here.

And for a matter of minutes you can see what and who lives in the Future Cemetery.

Death + Technology Death + the Law Death + the Web

Live and Let Social Media Die

Government Advises Americans to Create ‘Social Media Will’ to Handle Facebook, Twitter, Email Accounts After Death
Meena Hart Duerson, New York Daily News (May 7, 2012) Writing a Social Media Will
It’s unfortunate how many people believe that estate planning is only for wealthy people. People at all economic levels benefit from an estate plan. Upon death, an estate plan legally protects and distributes property based on your wishes and the needs of your family and/or survivors with as little tax as possible.

Social Media Executor. This is the individual that the’s website recommends you use to manage your Social Media Will. For the foreseeable future, that’s a growth industry job. It’s also not that new. In one way or another, the Death Reference Desk has discussed the nuts and bolts of postmortem social media issues with Facebook, digital assets, and the Death + Technology section. The Economist magazine also recently weighed in on this topic, so it must be serious(!).

What is slightly different with this specific Death Ref post about the postmortem digital word is’s involvement. We now have an official American government website making recommendations about creating a Social Media Will. I don’t want to overstate any of these suggestions, since five years from now ‘social media’ may well have morphed into something totally different.

The next big question will be whether or not, and how, postmortem digital assets could be taxable as inheritable wealth. I have no idea how that issue will play out but I expect somehow, somewhere this situation has already arisen.

In the meantime, check out’s social media will suggestions.

Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Death + the Web

Facebook likes Organ Donation

Facebook Users Can Add Organ Donor Status
Hayley Tsukayama, The Washington Post (May 01, 2012)
Facebook has added a unique feature to its social network: you can now tell the world — or just your family members — that you’re an organ donor.


Facebook in Organ Donation Push
James Gallagher, BBC News (May 01, 2012)
Three people die every day while waiting for a transplant, NHS says. NHS
Blood and Transplant said the partnership was an “exciting new way” to
encourage donation. Around 10000 people in the UK are on the waiting list
for an organ.

A quick post on a story from yesterday’s news that we at the Death Reference Desk expect many people caught. Facebook, and more specifically Mark Zuckerberg, announced that FB users can now use their Facebook accounts to register as Organ Donors. Here is how it works:

  1. Go to your account and click on Life Event
  2. Click on Health & Wellness
  3. Click on Organ Donor and then enter whatever information you want about being a donor.

If you are in the United Kingdom and want to be an organ, tissue, and/or bone donor but are not yet on the NHS Donor Registry then the UK version of FB enables you to sign up.

I’m a registered organ donor in both America (on my Great State of Wisconsin drivers license) and the UK via the donor registry. I am also now an official Facebook organ donor(!) so you know it’s for real.


Two things to say about this move by Facebook. First off, it’s a good idea. The more that people discuss end of life decisions, such as organ donation, before a person is hooked up to a ventilator and unable to communicate is always helpful. Indeed, this new FB Life Event option is being trumpeted as a way for individuals to unequivocally demonstrate their commitment to postmortem organ donation. This is important so that next-of-kin do not block the use of said organs when the time comes for a decision.

Here is my second take. By making this move, Facebook is entering into a world of longer sustainability. For all of FB’s novelty (and sometimes silliness) this organ donation option means that users can now begin managing their end of life planning through Facebook. This is key. Countless other interweb companies have sprung up to manage these end of life issues, especially for deceased FB users, and Death Ref has covered those companies here. Yet Facebook itself hasn’t really ventured into the reality of death, or that its users die.

I fully expect that Facebook central will eventually add a funeral planning option for its account holders. Down the road.

And by attaching a person’s future/inevitable death to a Facebook account Mark Zuckerberg might just create that one internet app that everyone will want in order to plan a funeral.

Thus demonstrating Death Ref’s Rule #1 for any user based technology: Everybody eventually dies.

Including Facebook users.

Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Death + the Law Death + the Web Grief + Mourning

Social Media Web Users Keep Dying…Second Verse Same as the First

On the Media: Updating Your Social Media After You Die
WNYC Public Radio (March 23, 2012)
With social media, so much of our interactions with the world now live online, even after we may not be living at all. Brooke talks to James Norris, the founder of the website Deadsocial about prolonging social media relationships after death.

Back in February, I wrote about WNYC’s radio program On the Media and its show on Facebook. That Death Ref post, subtly titled 19,000 Facebook Users Die Each Day. Here is How FB’s Memorialization Mode Works, discussed the current, nonstop discussions about what to do when web users (especially FB users, it seems) die.

The Death Reference Desk has been tracking most of the various suggested ways to maintain postmortem control over social media accounts, Facebook in particular, and you can read those posts here. You should also check out the Death + the Web and the Death + Technology sections.

For this week’s On the Media show, co-host Brooke Gladstone interviewed James Norris about his solution to the social media death problem, a platform called Deadsocial.

A couple of points.

Gladstone asked the most pressing question, which is this: How long lived is any new media solution to human death issues given how quickly computing technology changes?

Norris offers a couple of logical responses, mostly about how Deadsocial would adapt to any future social media platform and that doing so was only ethical.

I’m still skeptical that any of the various dead user related websites/programs will remain relevant into the future but I could be totally wrong. I say I’m skeptical because I know how much technology has changed when it comes to death, dying, and the dead body. Meg’s brilliant post on 19th Century Anti-Premature Burial Device Patents elegantly demonstrates how social concerns about different kinds of postmortem technological fixes radically shift over time.

In fact, I will suggest that most of the current, various dead user inventions, programs, and products are more or less 21st Century versions of 19th Century anti-premature burial devices. The thinking now isn’t so much that people need tools to prevent them from being buried alive (modern embalming and cremation solved that dilemma), rather now we need tools to make sure that we Humans can still exert some control over how our digital selves are buried.

In 50 years time, I fully expect that all of these social media concerns will have been forgotten. Or replaced with other, more pressing technology issues.

A second point about the interview. The Deadsocial system was described as a signaling program which checks on users and notifies other, predetermined people when a person isn’t responding to automated messages. A handful of other programs already do this, namely, Deathswitch. All of these programs are different in their own ways, so I’m not suggesting that any company is ripping anyone else off. What is more interesting, I think, is that these various companies keep inventing ways to notify next-of-kin or friends or all of the Facebook that someone has died.

This was also one of the telegraph’s key uses, from the start. A long forgotten but extremely important social communication technology.

My point is this — we should continue to have these conversations about what happens to computer information when people die but we should also realize that these conversations are finite.

I actually found another section of the same On the Media episode far more compelling as it regards the dead user conundrum. The interview focused on something called the Archive Team:

Most of us think nothing of putting our lives in the cloud; photos in Flickr, videos on YouTube, most everything on Facebook. But what about when those services abruptly go away, taking all of our collective contributions with them? Well Jason Scott operates on the assumption that everything online will one day disappear. He explains to Bob why he and the Archive Team are dedicated to saving user-generated content for posterity.

At least the Achive Team understands the rapidly increasing ephemerality of web based information. Indeed, the Archive Team’s motto says it all: History is Our Future.

More than likely, we will need future Archive Teams of all kinds that simply try to understand why some early 21st Century humans became so obsessed with preserving their technological, social media selves. It will all seem to peculiar and strange.

Not unlike 19th Century devices to prevent premature burials.

Death + Technology Death + the Law Death + the Web Grief + Mourning

19,000 Facebook Users Die Each Day. Here is How FB’s Memorialization Mode Works

Living Online After Death Faces Nebraska Legal Battle
BBC News (January 31, 2012)

WNYC’s On the Media radio program dedicated this entire week’s show to Facebook and its users. Per usual, it was an excellent set of stories. I was a little surprised, however, that the program didn’t discuss what happens when Facebook users die.

So let me pick-up that storyline.

Let’s roll out some numbers. The current number of Facebook users is somewhere near 845 million. The rough annual mortality rate across the planet is 8.37 deaths per 1000 individuals (this number is gleaned from the CIA World Factbook on global mortality statistics and is far from exact, so we’re dealing in broad approximations). After doing a little math, this means that over 7 million Facebook users die each year. Divide that by 365 days and you’re looking at over 19,000 Facebook users dying every day.

By comparison, 1500 people die every day across England, Scotland and Wales. In America, over 6,000 people die a day. I could go on and on.

I was already thinking this week about death and Facebook since a handful of American states are either drafting legislation to enable next-of-kin access to social media accounts, and/or the laws have already been enacted. The BBC story at the top of the page discusses proposed legislation in Nebraska. You can see short summaries of both proposed and passed legislation here and here.

Facebook anticipated this situation a few years ago and the Death Reference Desk has been covering this situation since day one. You can see of all our posts on Facebook and Death here.

In 2009 (October 26, 2009 at 4:48pm to be exact) Facebook announced that it was now using something called Memorialization Mode for dead account holders. This Facebook blog post, Memories of Friends Departed Endure on Facebook by Max Kelly, explained how Memorialization Mode worked. Here are the key sections from the post:

We understand how difficult it can be for people to be reminded of those who are no longer with them, which is why it’s important when someone passes away that their friends or family contact Facebook to request that a profile be memorialized. For instance, just last week, we introduced new types of Suggestions that appear on the right-hand side of the home page and remind people to take actions with friends who need help on Facebook. By memorializing the account of someone who has passed away, people will no longer see that person appear in their Suggestions.


When an account is memorialized, we also set privacy so that only confirmed friends can see the profile or locate it in search. We try to protect the deceased’s privacy by removing sensitive information such as contact information and status updates. Memorializing an account also prevents anyone from logging into it in the future, while still enabling friends and family to leave posts on the profile Wall in remembrance.

So when Facebook is notified of someone’s death via the Report a Deceased Person’s Profile page then the account will be changed.

Now, I’ve never had to report a deceased person’s account (which is nice) so I don’t have any direct experience with how it works. I also can’t tell if Facebook has modified what happens to dead user accounts since the initial 2009 announcement.

Here’s the rub — at some point Facebook will require an entire department dedicated to User Mortality. At approximately 19,000 deaths a day, the situation can only be left to its own devices for so long.

If for any reason, to prevent false death notifications like this one.

Indeed, what Facebook needs is a Senior Vice President for User Mortality Affairs and the DRD Team is more than happy to take on that job, should FB’s headhunters be tooling around the Death Reference Desk.

But until that job offer arrives, we at Death Ref will continue to track how over 7 million deceased Facebook accounts are turned into ad hoc digital memorials.

Cemeteries Death + the Web

The Kindness of Strangers and the Internet: Finding William’s Grave at Mountain View

For all our morbid bent and grave humor, plenty warms our hearts at the Death Reference Desk. Personally I (Meg) am a stickler for serendipity and random acts of stranger kindness, especially when it involves the internet and otherwise impossible interactions. This week the cardiac warm fuzzies involve… hey! us! all starting with a post I wrote in 2010.

I used to live in Vancouver, British Columbia, and had been keeping tabs on Mountain View Cemetery—in this particular post, their quirky signage. Over a year later, in October 2011, Edward Millan of Wales commented on the post. He was looking for information about the grave of his uncle, William Millan. Born in Scotland in 1901, as a teenager William served in the Kings Own Scottish Borderers during World War I. Later a farmhand, William sought a better life and immigrated to Canada in 1927. He settled in Vancouver but in 1934 died of tuberculosis. He was buried at Mountain View Cemetery.

Unfortunately there wasn’t much I could offer Edward, the curious nephew half the world away. After hunting around the Mountain View website, I found the interment directory and cemetery maps, and made some screenshots that pinpoint the section and exact plot of William’s grave.

This was something but left much to be desired. Then, out of nowhere in December, another random visitor to this random, old blog post offered to take pictures of the grave. Neville McClure of Vancouver figured it a “fun, little self-imposed errand” for a brisk afternoon and this week sent me photos that I forwarded to a very surprised, very grateful Edward.

MVCemetery_Millan1 MVCemetery_Millan2

I love this for a lot of reasons. It’s obviously a touching gesture (go Neville!), made the more interesting with the three of us being complete strangers (in separate countries, at that). But I also enjoy the motivation—less good deed than having a mission, a goal and grail if only for an afternoon, a treasure hunt when the real gold is simply getting outside and enjoying nature. As Neville writes, “In a city increasingly jammed with condo towers, it’s a rare Big Open Space these days.”

As a librarian and all-around internet fiend, I’m also fascinated by the role of technology in this effort. Instantaneous information and real-time communication get all the glory. Bombarded by the hype of social media networking and on-the-spot everything, we forget that the internet has a long memory and still works splendidly for asynchronous discovery and collaboration.

As such, this post was years in the making. Thanks, Edward and Neville! 🙂

Death + Popular Culture Death + the Law Death + the Web

Poor Dead Steve Jobs May Not Own His Dead Image

Who Owns Your Image After You Die?
On the Media (January 13, 2012)

Here’s a really interesting radio story by WNYC’s On the Media about what happens to an individual’s image after he or she dies. A Chinese toy manufacturer wants to create a Steve Jobs action figure. Apple successfully blocked a similar product in 2010 but may not be so lucky now that Jobs is deceased–with his “personality rights” with him.

steve1Add these concerns to the long list of postmortem digital media ownership rights. It also turns out that each state across America has different laws for handling these situations. The main interviewee for the story, Jeff Roberts, does a good job explaining how the state-by-state laws work.

Keep an eye on this story. As more and more of everything shifts to a digital format then the very idea of an “owned image” will be challenged.

Indeed, it’s a situation Steve Jobs helped create.

Death + Technology Death + the Web Funeral Industry Monuments + Memorials

The Value-added Tombstone

QR Codes Are Appearing on (Ready for This?) Tombstones
Julio Ojeda-Zapata, Press (May 20, 2011)

What’s the next best thing to placing flowers on your loved one’s grave marker? Teddy bears? Mylar balloons? Thanks to technology, those items are now passe. The latest way for you to pay your respects is via the QR code. The what??

A recent article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press discusses how Rochester (MN)-based Funeral Innovations is helping to spur the trend of this newly popular technology and hoping it will catch on with funeral directors and the general public.

For the uninitiated—or perhaps those without a smartphone—a QR code is a two-dimensional code readable by dedicated QR code readers and camera phones. In use in Japan since 1994, QR (or quick response) codes are now being used by various individuals, groups and businesses to promote all sorts of things. Advertising, music and business execs are using the codes to give people a value-added experience; scan the QR code and you are transported to a new layer of information about the product, artist or in the case of the funeral industry—the dearly departed.

So how does it work? Well, say Aunt Sally’s family puts one on her headstone. If your smartphone has a barcode reader app installed, you can point the camera on your phone towards the code. The camera then scans the code and relays information to your phone by taking you to a website where more information is available. Maybe it brings up Aunt Sally’s memorial service posted on YouTube or maybe it takes you to an online photo album or a page on the funeral home’s website that includes her obituary or tribute. Snazzy, huh?

QR codes have become the latest topic of discussion where I work. Ever since they made a big splash at SXSW this past year, there’s been a lot of chatter about how libraries can capitalize on this admittedly geeky but cool tech tool. At my library, we’re bandying about the idea of putting them near some of the art and architecture in our historic building. Click the code and voila—access to way more info than we can possibly squeeze onto a tiny plaque placed near the art or architectural feature. At the University of Bath for example (where Death Ref colleague John resides), they are experimenting with using the QR code to “to join up library services with the technology and equipment students use.”

While we must remain vigilant about not alienating those who cannot afford or who have no desire to own a smart phone or barcode scanner, I can see how a technology like this has the potential to be a game changer—a new way of conceiving and consuming information for the masses. But what do you think? Are QR codes the wave of the future or a gimmick best left in the digital dustbin? Let us know your thoughts.