With their elaborate mourning rituals and overt memorialisation of death, the Victorians embraced the concept of a better life in heaven. Death was not a tragedy, but to die and not be properly mourned was a deep fear. Funerals and events attached to the burying, immortalising, and remembering of the dead took on enormous importance.
The adherence to codes of mourning etiquette, and emergence of a major industry to provide clothes and accessories for funerals, reached an apex in the 19th century for a number of reasons. Apart from the historical influence of mourning customs for Court and aristocratic circles, there was also the simple fact that mortality rates were higher. Almost half of all children did not live to adulthood; women commonly died in childbirth; men were lost at sea, in industrial or farming accidents, or due to insanitary living conditions. The average life expectancy was less than fifty years.
The combined cultural influences of religious rituals, superstition and symbolism also played their part. There was seen to be a correspondence between outer display and inner feelings when memorialising the dead, and mourning attire became subject to complex fashion etiquette. Whilst sombre clothing served as a visual symbol of grief and respect for the deceased, it also demonstrated the wearer’s status, taste and level of propriety. Mourning customs transcended all classes. Many Victorian households spent so much money on providing a “proper burial” that survivors were sometimes left without the most basic necessities.
A little over a hundred years later, in the era of Coronavirus, we are not even able to formally commemorate death; funerals are limited to all but a few members of close family, and dying words are often relayed via a mobile ‘phone or an electronic device.
Whilst charities, funeral services and bereavement care organisations recommend ways of commemorating those lost during the pandemic, these are almost exclusively online, be they recordings of funerals, memorial websites and digital tributes. In my 2006 book Trends Beyond Life: In Search of Immortality, I predicted a future of digital legacy planning and transcendence, based upon my observations of increasingly online outpourings of grief, practices of mourning and remembrance. A recent paper from the University of Chicago says that, “in the age of COVID this shift is more pronounced, with significant disruptions to consumer commemoration practices.”
The emphasis on virtual instead of real commemoration brings up questions of disenfranchisement in terms of equality of access, especially relating to the elderly. The use of technology does not take into account cultural and religious practices, meaning that some ethnic groups are also disadvantaged.
In a London School of Economics article from October 2020, Dr. Katherine Millar is quoted as saying, “The UK government’s focus on COVID-19 deaths as a statistic, rather than its impact on individuals and communities, fails to recognize how COVID-19 has impacted the UK population differently.” She goes on to say how this leaves outcomes of the pandemic open to interpretation, which: “has the potential to increase social discord as groups struggle for recognition.”
In the same article, Dr Martin Bayly suggests that the decision not to commemorate the 1918 flu pandemic, “likely impacted the UK’s ability to come to terms with and prepare for subsequent pandemics.” The LSE’s Department for International Relations suggests measures such as, “designating a national day of mourning, establishing a collective history project across the UK and creating a fund to support local and regional commemoration and memorialisation projects, to ensure that Covid-19 is remembered in an inclusive way that prepares the public for future health crises.”
In previous crises, such as natural disasters or the AIDS pandemic, there have been global responses, including commemorative services and rock concerts, but with social distancing and travel bans the world is becoming increasingly fractured. However, plans are underway in some countries to create COVID memorial sites, including a garden at London’s Olympic Park. There is even talk of a COVID-19 museum in the disease epicentre, Wuhan. These have been designated sites of “dark tourism” in an article by The Conversation.
Will mourning eventually become a thing of the past if we can extend our lives digitally? The prospect of an avatar keeping our digital footprint alive is likely, but how can we be sure it will reflect our true story, or that it will still be accessible to future generations in view of potential upgrades in technology? What if we are eventually implanted with micro-chips to effectively become trans human; will the technology become obsolescent so we die a second digital death?
Whilst there is evidence that new mourning rituals are emerging as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, how will the digitalisation of death affect our human and social interactions going forward? And how would you like to be digitally remembered?